Blog Post

Phase or Forever? The Long-Term Impact of Remote Working in Legal

January 20, 2021

Remote working in legal. New working patterns are having a profound effect on lawyers, law firms, and departments, but what will it mean long-term for our mental health, office culture, and law firm profitability?

Remote working is so last year. And this year. And most likely for years to come.

For legal firms and organizations of every size, the pivot to remote working in just days and weeks, rather than months and years was extraordinary. Many who never believed it was possible to run a successful law firm or department remotely are being proved wrong in every sense.

And yet the long-term ramifications, be them positive or not, have yet to be felt. Certainly, there is much discussion about it. As wider reports from lawyers start to emerge, we’re starting to get some clarity on how last year’s organizational changes might impact our working patterns, our mental health, our office culture, and our profitability for years to come.

Remote working in legal: new working patterns

After the first lockdown in 2020, many law firms adapted their ways of working and within months had decided to make remote working – albeit in a hybrid model – part of their new normal. In the UK firms such as Linklaters announced it was allowing half its lawyers to work from home indefinitely, following moves by multiple US law firms,  including DLA Piper and Baker McKenzie.

According to the 2021 Report on the State on the Legal Market by Georgetown Law and the Thompson Reuters Institute, most law firms believe the disruption resulting from remote working due to the pandemic was less serious than they expected. Coupled with the cost savings and profit gains from furlough schemes, government subsidies, and real estate savings, and it’s easy to see why some firms are adopting a hybrid model indefinitely.

And, from a human perspective, there’s been an about-turn on the percentage of lawyers who now want to work from home. In the same report, the proportion of US lawyers who now want to work remotely at least one day a week has doubled from pre-pandemic levels. While 37 % of lawyers expressed an interest in remote work before the pandemic, 76 % now favor working remotely.

This has had a big impact on women in the legal sector – many of whom carry the burden of managing a household and childcare on top of their full or part-time roles. The survey found 42% of female partners say that they see real improvement in working conditions from work from home, as opposed to only 31% of men.

Another study from Atlas Cloud reinforces the view that lawyers are happy at home. It states that 85% of lawyers now want to work at least one day a week from home.  And who can blame them? The survey highlights that while lawyers will work an extra 20 days per year more than when they were office-based, they also gain an extra 27 days in free time – doubling many vacation quotas.

Remote working in legal: getting to grips with mental health

But while there are positives to remote working – more time with family, or to exercise and less cash spent on commuting, the mental health impact can’t be ignored.

At a recent CLOC event, David Wilkins, Professor at Harvard Law University, said the danger isn’t with disruption to services, but the risk of burn-out.  One lawyer he spoke to said he wasn’t working from home; he was sleeping at work! This blurring of the work/life balance has impacted many, alongside feelings of loneliness and ‘always-on’. While lawyers have never been more connected via technology, replicating the power of office-based social interactions over Zoom is impossible.

On the bright side, law firms not traditionally renowned for their focus on health and well-being, are being forced to adopt new policies and help their employees create a better work/life balance. According to The State of Legal 2021, 82 % of law firm senior risk managers report that their firms have implemented new programs to assist legal and administrative staff in dealing with the mental health issues and emotional stress resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.

And, as we mentioned last year, mental health care isn’t just about ensuring the juniors are well cared for – it’s about preserving everyone’s state of mind – from CEO to cleaner.  Partners have been trying to stimulate social content in various ways – from happy hour at the end of each day where colleagues meet virtually with a coffee or beer to catch up, to visiting employee’s homes and taking a socially distanced stroll around their neighborhood.

Finding a new culture club

But as Professor Wilkins pointed out, law firms and in-house legal departments are struggling to build community and collaboration online.  And it’s this community, this culture, that we are in danger of losing – something that has consequences not just for our mental health, but also for law firms themselves.

Without offices there are no desks or water coolers to chat around, leaving little opportunity for serendipity to help solve problems. There are no chance meetings that spark ideas or give someone a new take on a case or dispute. There’s no interaction that helps alleviate stress and create a camaraderie that drives company loyalty.

After all, law firm and department culture is one thing that differentiates one company from another. When pay scales, roles, locations can all be similar, it’s their distinctive cultures that set them apart, and replicating that online, with little face to face interaction, is a huge challenge.

Money, money, money

The other aspect of culture is that when law firms and legal departments get it right, it drives recruitment and retention of the best staff. And the best staff means winning cases, and greater profits – arguably something that law firms are interested in now more than ever.

While Professor Wilkins cited the National Law Journal study in his CLOC presentation, saying 92% of all lawyers strongly agree that they are continuing to deliver outstanding services, partners will have their eyes on the profit margin to see the impact remote working is having.

And so far, so good. The State of Legal report says the actions taken by firms during 2020, combined with reduced expenses due to closed offices, staff recruitment freezes, and other changes from standard operating procedure, resulted in… “very strong growth” in profits per equity partner (PPEP). Across all market segments, there were… “significant improvement in PPEP over 2019, and it appears that all segments are likely to finish the year with PPEP growth well above 10 %”, according to the report.

But how long will this last? As government, subsidies dry up, and offices slowly reopen – even for fewer people – costs will rise again and balancing those against the push from clients to do more with less will be a challenge. Coupled with the idea that clients, who are used to paying big-city law firm prices, might not feel inclined to pay the same when the work is being done at a home office in suburbia.

The new future

In an environment where nothing is certain, one thing we can count on is that even the traditionalists in the legal sector have finally caught up with the rest of the corporate work and are including flexible working as standard practice.

For the long-term, outside of a pandemic-induced environment, we all need to get better at connecting properly with our colleagues and peers, organizations and law departments need to structure their teams appropriately considering this and give everyone the resources they need to make it work successfully.

We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to rethink and reimagine the way we work – so let’s go for it and get it right.