With the catalyst effect of the pandemic pushing law firms to adopt home working almost across the board, management teams are looking at how much flexible working to retain for the future.
Law firms have not always been at the forefront of adopting new technologies or ways of working, but the overnight adjustment of 2020 was the push needed for dramatic change. Many legal businesses surprised themselves in their ability to quickly put an efficient remote working model in place. The inevitable question now is how much flexibility to retain.
A YouGov poll published in September 2020 found that 57 per cent of workers want to continue working from home once the pandemic is over, with the figure for London even higher at 66 per cent. This is a global phenomenon with a large survey of 12,000 employees working in many diverse sectors taken by Boston Consulting Group in September 2020 indicates that this is an across-the-board movement:
“Our findings suggest that the future of work will be increasingly hybrid. And this presents both challenges and opportunities: to reimagine the entire employee experience and to create conditions that allow employees to thrive in the workplace of the future—one that will be far less office centric. This means developing new hybrid working models that enable employees to move seamlessly between onsite and remote work, as well as thinking about the appropriate physical space—both size and shape—for the hybrid office.” Boston Consulting Group, 2020.
Work from home benefits
Janet Cooper OBE, a Partner at top 5 magic circle firm Linklaters for 28 years, also founded an award-winning law firm. Janet very successfully built her legal teams within both law firms based on offering ‘agile’ working patterns. Janet is careful when defining this, using the term “agreed hours” rather than labelling the arrangements ‘part-time’ or ‘flexible working’ which in the past she says may have had negative connotations within law firms.
Janet’s view is that the last 12 months will prove to be a seismic shift for the legal profession. She concludes that “the pandemic year has clearly shown us (lawyers) that we can work from home, we can work in an agile way, and that there is technology available to make it work. The business case for agile working is very much based around the ability to recruit the best lawyers for the role, retaining your staff, and also cost savings associated with streamlining office space”. Janet also observes from managing legal teams in this way over the long term that agile working lawyers naturally start working more digitally, with less paper-based files, as two locations for work naturally encourages adoption of technology to make life easier. The knock-on benefits in terms of transparency and risk management are well known in technology adoption, and not least in print and storage cost reductions too.
The benefits of working from home for both lawyers and law firms has been well documented now. Technology, work processes and risk management have been improved, with structures across the board working more efficiently where time and effort has been put into ensuring everyone can access what they need from anywhere.
Going forward, reduced overheads are a distinct possibility, hotdesking arrangements for agile working lawyers, meaning a better return on premises investment.
Lawyers, typically working long hours, have benefited from less hours spent commuting and have more time for deep focus on work. Meetings tend to be shorter and the work-life balance improved. In return for the benefits that home-working offers, individuals tend to go the extra mile to show their worth to their firm and provide the best service they can to their clients.
In the near future, law firms offering full flexibility are likely to be sought-after employers, able to have their pick of legal talent.
The hybrid model
The majority of those who told YouGov that they would like to continue to work from home said that they would like to do this some of the time and also spend some of the time spent in the office, with 39 per cent expressing a preference for this type of hybrid working.
The need to connect with other lawyers, have informal discussions and share knowledge remains, and for mental health and variety some time spent in the office each week could be beneficial.
As well as keeping a firm’s culture alive, it is crucial for newer or less experienced members of staff to be able to access good quality mentoring and support.
The hybrid model will not automatically happen without supporting structures being put in place however. HR personnel and supervisors will need to have ways of assessing how lawyers are coping if a proportion of their time is spent alone.
Supervision and risk management will be vitally important in building up an efficient, profitable hybrid firm. As with anything new, it will be a learning curve. Those willing to take on the challenge have the opportunity to build a robust firm where teams work flexibly together to fulfil client needs, spreading the responsibility and reducing the problems should an individual lawyer leave.
Increased employee responsibility and transparency
The next step for law firms in the employee/employer relationship are new employment models or incentives such as employee ownership or fee sharing schemes. Giving lawyers a stake in the outcome. Encouraging lawyers to have a business focus as well as a legal focus is bound to bring benefits to a law firm as individuals look for innovative ways to market, offer services and generally improve efficiency and delivery.
The forced changes of 2020 offer a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to law firms to examine the most efficient and employee-friendly ways of working and to create a new profitable model. Those who push the boundaries and try new ways of working have the chance to experience break-out success as the world adjusts to increased digital delivery and less reliance on traditional office working.
Flexible models require just that – the flexibility to examine how new methods are working and adjust where necessary. For those looking to build their business in the future, going back to old ways of working is likely to be inadequate. Forward-thinking and creating a modern, adaptive approach has the potential to improve staff satisfaction, to attract and then retain the best legal talent, all the while increasing profitability and resilience.
Increasingly at our experienced team at SGR Legal is hearing from high quality candidates looking to move to innovative law firms offering more flexible arrangements. Get in touch to find out more and ensure your firm is best placed to secure and retain the best legal talent.