Covid-19 “will change law firm offices forever”

Bennett: Huge uptake in live chat
Photo: Ginger Pixie Photography

A global law firm has predicted that as many as 80% of its workforce will remain transient or permanently working from home after the Covid-19 crisis ends, with only around a fifth being full-time office workers.

In a related development, a workplace design consultant has warned that in future law firms will face a greater challenge in persuading senior partners who were content to work from home to come into the office and help train young lawyers, as they have done in the past.

Meanwhile, a major telephone outsourcing company has reported a massive increase in the use of live chat by law firms since lockdown began.

In a webinar, Lockdown: Tackling the agile challenge, representatives from law firms DWF and newly-merged South-East firm Moore Barlow, joined experts from telephone answering and live chat provider, Moneypenny, and workplace interior designers, Claremont.

Karl Warmbold, DWF’s director of facilities, property and procurement, said the firm was already some way down the road towards implementing agile working, with 40% of the firm’s total 4,500 staff engaging with the practice. It was also examining bringing in a complementary fully digital mailroom.

Covid-19 had accelerated the agile-working process, he said. The firm reopened offices on 1 June with a roughly 7% occupation, mainly individuals operating under financial regulation and those who needed to attend for wellbeing reasons.

“Crystal ball gazing I think we’ll end up with plus or minus 80% of our population remaining as some kind of permanent homeworkers or transient workers – for instance, those who work three days at home and two days in the office.”

At the same time, the firm was imagining what the office would look like a year from now, when he expected pressure to mitigate some of the firm’s costs by reducing overheads.

One solution DWF was considering, Mr Warmbold said, was abandoning central offices in favour of a “shop front” in the city centre where client meetings could take place and occupying a building slightly further out of town where rents were cheaper.

Claremont workplace consultant Ann Clarke agreed that many firms were looking at such a hub and spoke arrangement, and ditching expensive property portfolios, perhaps with out-of-town premises in which a small number of lawyers worked, with more space allocated to others hot-desking simultaneously.

Importantly, she warned that law firms in particular, which have long operated a model in which senior lawyers mentored young lawyers as a key part of their training, would face challenges in encouraging older lawyers to leave their homes and come in to work.

Whereas young lawyers often faced difficulties at home such as cramped conditions or the presence of young children, many senior lawyers were “very comfortable” and “quite happy working from home really”.

She said: “The challenge is that you’ve got create a destination that serves both those groups of people so you’re enticing those people who don’t really need to go into the office to do their actual work, to come back so you can bring that next generation of lawyers through in a really productive way…

“You’ve got grow your people. If you don’t, you’ve got to bring in people and it’s very expensive constantly having to re-recruit because people don’t feel they are getting support.

“Our view is a workplace is an effective tool at doing that. It’s just how can we make that a safe and uplifting place to be now and for the future without being so focused on the immediate challenges of social distancing and [avoiding] Covid-19, so you’re taking away from the reason that people want to be there.”

Bernadette Bennett, Moneypenny’s head of legal, said the sector was “recovering well” but that the closure of offices meant the first impressions of clients walking through the door were absent, which put emphasis on firms’ websites.

“Your website will become your friend that’s the face of your business now, but you have to make it easy enough for clients to know how to get in touch with you”, she observed.

Moneypenny’s statistics showed demand by law firms for operating live chat has increased 180% compared with the same period last year.

Whereas pre-Covid around 35% of new enquiries came in via live chat, now the figure was around 65%. One firm pledged to communicate with the public 24 hours a day through its live chat platform.

Victoria Dunn, head of facilities and premises at Moore Barlow – which completed its £40m merger between Moore Blatch and Barlow Robbins on 1 May to create a top-100 firm with 70 partners and 272 lawyers, with offices in London, Southampton, Guildford, Woking and Lymington – described the profound difficulty of completing a merger during lockdown.

It was that much harder, she said, because the firms were only beginning to adopt agile working. The merged IT department had to have 300 people working from home within the space of a week. Distributing enough laptops was a particular problem.

She went on: “The next challenge was around our staff’s well-being; how we keep people feeling engaged and connected and part of the newly formed Moore Barlow…

“After lockdown we set a wellbeing timetable involving things like yoga, personal training systems, virtual cocktail making and wine tasting. Included were staff who had been furloughed, working from home, or in the office.”

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