By Legal Futures Associate Flex Legal
The rise of Covid-19 and the subsequent global pandemic in 2020 changed so much for so many. We are now in the second year of the pandemic and still trying to adjust to our new reality. But with the relaxation of rules and the rollout of the vaccination programme in the UK, there is a move towards rebuilding and recovery.
For the legal industry, that means evaluating working practices – including whether, and how, people return to the office. For many we spoke with, there is an awareness that, working in the law, they have been in a privileged position over the past 18 months. “I could do my job very effectively from home, which is not a luxury many other industries had,” said Jules Quinn, Partner in the Labor and Employment practice at King & Spalding. “We took government guidance very seriously, and mobilised home working quickly and effectively – literally over a weekend.”
The change was abrupt, but the return to the office will be anything but, with numerous options and timeframes to consider. At many firms, employees have now been working at home, to some extent, for 18 months. The pandemic proved that remote working can work. Not without hard work, digital investment, and company-wide buy-in, true – but it works.
So do people want to go back to a pre-pandemic ‘normal’? Has the industry fundamentally changed? What does the future of work look like?
Let’s take a look.
How has tech facilitated the transition to flexible working?
The rise in and sophistication of digital technologies in recent years helped facilitate the recent transition to remote work for many firms. From e-signatures and document and contract workflow management, to video conferencing software, the tools were available. The pandemic merely accelerated and accentuated their use for some firms, and reaffirmed their necessity for future-facing firms who’d already invested in this area. “Agile working is in our DNA,” explained Holly Woodhouse, Flexible Resource Manager at CMS. “From a tech perspective, it was easy (to transition to remote working) as we were already set up with our own IT equipment and we have excellent IT support.”
The use of technological solutions skyrocketed globally during the pandemic. Zoom, just one of the companies dominating in the area of cloud-based video conferencing platforms, for example, saw its sales in the last three months of 2020 go up 370% compared to the same period the year before. And from 2019 to 2020, Zoom’s overall profits went from $21.7m to $671.5m. But while the company doesn’t expect such extravagant growth moving forwards, it believes remote and work-from-anywhere trends are here to stay.
Microsoft, another provider of virtual team solutions, is also robustly confident in the future of flexible work, calling hybrid structures “The Next Great Disruption” in its 2021 research and insights report. According to its data, hybrid work is “inevitable”, with 73% of employees surveyed wanting flexible options to continue and 67% wanting more in-person work post-pandemic. The legal profession is no exception.
Why do lawyers prefer the hybrid working model?
The recent regional results of the Thomson Reuters survey, “Stellar Performance: A Survey of Standout Talent”, reveal that the appetite for flexible working has increased dramatically in the legal profession. 63% now want to work flexible hours, compared to 22% pre-pandemic. On average, they want to work in a hybrid manner, with 2.1 days at home moving forwards – up from 0.6 previously.
“An option for hybrid working looks like it will be a winner in the legal industry,” commented Jules Quinn. “It’s continuing the trend for more flexible conditions we’ve been seeing for the past decade, well before lockdown. These include part-time work or job shares, better work-life balance for parenting or carer responsibilities, paternity leave, and so on.”
This desire to work flexibly does not reflect a decline in job commitment. Previously, lawyers in the UK worked an average of 10 hours per day on weekdays and expressed a future preference to work 10.1 hours, according to Thomson Reuters. Lawyers don’t want to work less – they want to work better, in ways that support their lives. “We are all different and our firm recognises that,” said Holly Woodhouse. “Flexibility should be individualised, not prescribed.”
“We recognise that our people work on complex matters and so the decision of where they work – and when – is really for them,” said Jules Quinn. “They are able to make that judgment. That being said, we want to see a broad return on a regular basis to the office. I value flexibility, but the in-office collegiality and a shared sense of learning, experience, and interaction is what makes us tick and we want to maintain that. There should be a happy medium that balances the pros and cons.”
It’s a desire that’s felt across the industry, with juniors as well as partners keen to find balance between home and office working. A junior at a major global law firm based in London, commenting on condition of anonymity asserted: “I’d like to continue with a flexible model moving forward, but I’d like the option – although not necessarily the requirement – to regularly go into the office.”
The hybrid working model may well be the answer.
What are the benefits of hybrid working in law?
Working at home has obvious benefits that lawyers across the industry have come to value over the past 18 months. With no long commutes or office chit chat, time is saved and productivity is enhanced. Home and work demands can be more easily juggled. Greater autonomy is gained. “Gone are the days where people had to sit at an office desk to wait for a piece of work to come in,” explained Natalie Cook, Partner at Slaughter and May. “There is now more freedom and agility in terms of working patterns, which can only be a good thing.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the coin, working in the office – where your focus is solely on work, rather than home or family – can also be beneficial for productivity. Professional connections and relationships can be more easily made and maintained, collaboration is easier, and company culture can be experienced.
“We’ve all seen the stats on productivity and employee satisfaction around the work/life balance (with increased flexibility)” said Holly Woodhouse. “But I think there is also a D&I opportunity to consider, too. You increase the candidate pool and promote employee retention when you offer flexible working, and that’s really exciting.”
The ability to work flexibly is a lightning-rod topic in the recruitment market currently – and a great benefit for firms who are quick to ride the wave. The much-touted “Great Resignation” is underway, with the numbers of employees leaving the workforce or switching jobs increasing dramatically. Microsoft’s recent research found that 40% of the global workforce are thinking about leaving their employer this year.
How this impacts the legal industry remains to be seen, and depends on whether firms are able to provide the kind of working practices candidates want moving forwards. From her unique position as Flexible Resource Manager at CMS, Holly Woodhouse has seen a marked interest in remote working from candidates lately. “We’re taking a proactive approach and promoting our flexibility more than ever,” she explained. “The recruitment market is incredibly busy at the moment, and in a candidate-short market, you have to be adaptive.”
What are the challenges of hybrid working in law?
Hybrid working can give the individual greater control over when and how they work, but it can prove problematic for the team. The junior lawyer described the recent return to the office as “slightly underwhelming” – on any given day, there just weren’t as many people there as expected.
It can be hard to synchronise when everyone will be in the office at the same time. And hybrid meetings – with a mix of in-person and remote attendance – have their drawbacks. “There’s a prevailing view that they’re clunky and the tech isn’t there yet,” explained the junior lawyer. “But it’s unclear if this is being expounded as a cover to draw people back in.”
Whether technology can catch up with the needs of hybrid working moving forwards is a big question for many we spoke to, as is the question of how to avoid the real risk of digital overload. As Natalie Cook explained: “In some cases, albeit over camera, I ‘saw’ clients more regularly than I would have done pre-pandemic. Although video calls aren’t quite the same as in-person meetings, they’re often better than phone calls. But I think we all have times where video call fatigue sets in.”
There is a sensation that to compensate for the lack of in-person interaction, more digital connection is needed. The idea that to prove to your team, your managers, that you’re working, you must respond to messages immediately. To always be available. But this is taxing. Similarly, a working life that involves home and the office can blur the lines between the two, leading to a feeling that you’re never really off-the-clock.
The challenges of fully remote working – from isolation and ensuring fair distribution of work, to the lack of mentoring and social interaction – would also need to be overcome in any kind of hybrid scenario.
But it’s the impact on juniors that all interviewees were preoccupied with as the major challenge of hybrid working. “For younger lawyers, training and guidance is key,” said Jules Quinn. “There needs to be room for observing a more senior lawyer and learning on the job. Building trust with colleagues and expanding your network is inevitably more of a challenge if you are not there in person. We need to give lawyers the tools to network and learn remotely. Catering for a hybrid model and ensuring fairness across the physical divide is key.”
“It can be achieved remotely, but it takes more effort than when we’re working face-to-face,” agreed Natalie Cook. “However, either way, senior colleagues need to be accessible to more junior colleagues.”
Speaking with the junior, they asserted that working remotely has impacted their development, at least “to some extent – there’s much less visibility to partners, fewer conversations leading to organic involvement in cases, and even less client contact than previously.”
Is flexible working in the legal industry here to stay?
Over the past 18 months, the legal industry had to deal with the demands of lockdown and our vastly changed circumstances. And it did. Teams had to adapt, and they did. As Holly Woodhouse observed: “We have always been a very collaborative firm, but teams collaborated differently and innovated in new ways.” And as the junior commented: “I felt trusted and not at all measured – beyond the usual strict measures of timesheets. It felt as if firms had to trust us and therefore did.”
When push came to shove, the legal industry made it work. And now it seems they are being asked to again. As Natalie Cook put it: “I think flexible working, in some form, is here to stay.” There are challenges involved in flexible and hybrid working practices, but candidates and employees want it, and firms have seen the benefits of it. There’s no denying the appeal of the office, but the ability to structure one’s work to suit one’s life has real benefits.
It comes down to creating a way of working that works for your employees. Ultimately, as Jules Quinn suggests, it’s about “how to be inclusive, and that’s a pretty sensible item to have at the top of any agenda.”
Key takeaways and summary
- The use of technology by legal teams has increased significantly over the course of the Covid pandemic. This was driven by a sudden transition to remote working, where legal teams had to rely much more heavily on IT solutions.
- Hybrid working has now been overwhelmingly embraced by legal teams, many of whom were exploring it even pre-pandemic. It is thought to offer a greater work/life balance on a deeply individual basis, especially post-Covid.
- Productivity is significantly improved during home working. Despite some concerns in the industry that home-working might be exploited, a balance between home and office working seems to offer the best of both worlds and improves employee productivity.
- Synchronising when employees will / will not be in the office together can prove an administrative challenge. For the full benefits of hybrid working to be reaped, employees should ideally be physically in the office on the same days.
- Hybrid working seems to make employees feel more respected, trusted, and satisfied overall with their work lives. Providing it can be managed correctly, there are a myriad of tangible benefits to a hybrid working policy.