Law Firm Innovators 2022: William Zee

William Zee, Appel, Yost & Zee

Zee’s innovation at the firm is an outgrowth of trauma-informed initiatives he has spearheaded for the Pennsylvania School Board Association and school districts throughout the country. Witnessing firsthand as a child, and later an educator, the impact of trauma and tox-stress on mental health, Zee worked to develop trauma-informed training that is now a required for all elected school board members and school personnel throughout Pennsylvania. Over the past decade, he has shared his insight and approach in training program, conferences and seminars across the country.

During the pandemic, Zee recognized that these efforts were essential to meeting the needs in the workforce generally, and our firm in particular, in the adoption of a different mindset regarding the needs of employees and supports necessary to ensure that their needs were met and they could, in turn, better meet the needs of our clients. He found that many of the principles and exercises being used to support students through mental and emotional health struggles lent themselves to the management of a law firm.

Necessity is the mother of invention. What need was your firm inspired to address with your innovation?

The COVID-19 pandemic called for the development of many new processes and procedures for operating a law firm that champions company culture above all else. With a large client base of educational institutions, businesses, and agencies, Bill needed to navigate not only the matters for our clients who were barred from in-person education and bogged down with questions from the community but also the challenges of growing a law firm . When staff morale is low, work suffers. Bill found a way to combat this through trauma-informed resources, collaborative work approaches, and mental health and wellness-based supports.

Innovation within a law firm requires a strong vision and a lot of coordination internally. How was your firm able to turn a vision into a reality during such an unpredictable year?

The firm was able to focus on trauma-informed work internally through intentional meetings in-person, via Zoom, and during workday and off-hours. The staff set aside time each week to meet, share in a safe space, collaborate on pending matters, and utilize materials and lessons shared with the group to support each other more effectively. Besides intentionality, the driving force for innovation was leadership by Bill and his effort to prioritize the staff he works with every day. With support from the management team to incorporate practices developed in large part to support work in public education, the firm underwent its most significant growth phase and created a unique and effective culture that better supports the needs of our employees.

What obstacles did the firm need to overcome to execute that vision?

During the pandemic, the firm was largely working remotely to help mitigate the spread of the virus. This presented significant challenges as staff felt isolated, fearful, and stressed about workloads and coming into the office. In addition, trauma-informed work was not a common practice in the workplace, and some felt unsure about participating. Once ways to connect such as Zoom and distanced meetings were established, the staff was able to share which matters they needed help with and how they would prefer colleagues to support them. With more exposure to trauma-informed practices, staff showed appreciation for the management team’s intentionality and focus on them as individuals.

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