Tough Topics Challenging Office Conversations

When Disaster Strikes, Why Do Some Thrive While Others Struggle?

The COVID-19 pandemic continues to be an unprecedented disruption to business — a marked understatement in some sectors. But that prompts the question: Why do some businesses, competing within the same industry serving similar clients, just hang on while others thrive? I spoke with three leaders in the alternative legal services industry to see if we could put a finger on it.

Adam Beschloss

(Author’s note: All three leaders consider themselves highly privileged to be able to continue working during COVID-19. They spoke movingly about the social toll it exacted from family, friends and colleagues. I present here a business-focused discussion only.)

Much has been written on transitioning to work from home, the resultant cultural challenges and its impact (benefit and decrement) to employee productivity and morale. Perhaps most written about is the widespread adoption of collaboration tools like GoToMeeting, Zoom, Microsoft Teams and Slack, and the resulting data security and information governance policy ramifications.

These collaboration tools, while important, are surely not the difference between success or failure for those adopting their use. Not to relitigate the highly controversial 2003 article “IT Doesn’t Matter,” but these tools do not confer a competitive advantage any more than your phone does. Their adoption to support an increasingly remote workforce is.

“Having tools to support internal and external communication is just table stakes, has been for years,” says David Greetham, Ricoh Legal’s Vice President of Sales and Operations.

So what does confer competitive advantage?


Like the health dangers of COVID-19, the potential for businesses to prevail during this crisis may have much to do with pre-existing conditions.

Greetham pioneered moving e-discovery into the public cloud, centralizing the data, while his team operates remotely. This requires strong communications protocols and inculcating a culture that supports a distributed workforce. “Culture dictates how well you can flex — not just your service offerings, but your mindset. It boils down to culture and how we operate,” he says. With this model, operating within COVID-19 constraints was largely business as usual for his team.

Ram Vasudevan, Founder and Chief Executive Officer at QuisLex, agrees that culture and mindset are key. “When something this disruptive occurs, you need the same entrepreneurial grit and resolve,” he notes. It’s part of what helped them grow from 3 to more than 1,000 employees. “That out-of-the-box thinking that got you to survive and succeed in the early stages of the company: the ability to react, adapt, survive and thrive.”

“The same qualities I look for in a professional to serve them well in a business as usual environment are, I think, the same qualities that will enable them to thrive in a highly challenging one.”

Like Ricoh, QuisLex also has a strong culture and support systems enabling internal and client-facing collaboration. Successfully offshoring legal services is greatly dependent upon it. However, operationally, in contrast to Ricoh, COVID-19 presented a real operational challenge to QuisLex.

One QuisLex value proposition is the permanently staffed lawyers centralized to their operations center in Hyderabad, India. While particularly important in the early days of offshoring to assuage concerns about network availability, data security, quality and other controls, it continues to be highly valued by QuisLex clients today. But lockdowns rendered this value proposition no longer viable (at least temporarily). What now? Flex, adapt and thrive.

“Because of our culture, the people we attract tend to have that entrepreneurial spirit whether in IT or operations,” says Vasudevan. “We all got together and came up with the best way to meet these challenges. We did it remarkably fast.”

Aileen Chan, a Principal in KPMG LLP’s Forensic practice, has a similar perspective regarding people and culture. “The same qualities I look for in a professional to serve them well in a business as usual environment are, I think, the same qualities that will enable them to thrive in a highly challenging one.”

While KPMG is structured to support consultants on the road, they also have a large number of professionals that routinely work in their offices. As such, COVID-19 did present some operational challenges. However, “when I look at the challenge that was presented to us, we were able to pivot in many different directions,” says Chan.

All three leaders make the case for culture, adaptability and flexibility in the mental models and operating models necessary to “react, adapt and thrive.” But there is one more critical factor in this: the client.

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You may be “able to pivot in many different directions,” as Chan puts it, but what if your clients are not prepared to “pivot” with you? COVID-19 had a profound impact on this client-provider dynamic — a change that was particularly profound in the legal services industry, a profession especially bound by precedence and tradition.

“The pandemic has ‘flattened the curve’ on acceptance on various things,” says Vasudevan. “What the pandemic did is relatively quickly … make obvious that location doesn’t matter. Now everyone works in the same distributed ecosystem. What matters is your knowledge and how you can get work done effectively.”

All agree that understanding your clients’ culture and ecosystem — and their COVID-19 challenges — is as important as understanding your own. “We are asking clients, ‘How is COVID impacting you, and how can we help you?’” says Greetham. Yes, everyone says they are client-facing, but once you dig under the sloganeering, it gets a little vague. These firms not only say they are client-facing but have the infrastructure and operating models to prove it.


Three organizations with three distinct operating models serving similar (sometimes the same) clients. Some challenges posed by COVID-19 are shared across each firm, while operational challenges are unique to each.

Despite the significant disruption to business and the internal challenges, Chan, Greetham and Vasudevan are all remarkably outward- and forward-looking — another key difference between surviving and thriving.

The silver lining in all this? As Chan states, “From a business perspective, positive things can come from this experience, too. We can take these forward and look to incorporate them into our future models.”

New normal? No. For these three, it’s something better.