Remote work: here to stay?
To answer that question, it’s important to recognise that current pandemic-enforced work-at-home conditions are a far cry from the usual parameters that have historically been discussed and explored by firms. Having said that, lawyers are much more flexible in their ability to conduct work in comparison to many other professions. For the most part, drafting documentation, speaking to clients and now even conducting court duties are all theoretically possible from a home working environment. Comparing that to any other profession regulated by a supervisory body akin to the SRA - especially those in the medical field in the current climate - and it’s clear there’s a real theoretical possibility for lawyers to shift a lot of their workload into the realm of flexible working.
A common analysis of remote work centres around notions of flexibility - in short, that it is better for lawyers, firms and their clients alike if all parties are able to service their needs either in an office or from their living room. Whilst flexibility will always be one of remote working’s strengths, there are several other factors to consider to determine whether it will be increasingly adopted post-virus.
Remote work has historically had a bad reputation when it comes to workplace productivity. Studies are beginning to show, however, that - when implemented properly - remote employees can be more productive than their office counterparts. However, this notion has begun to change. A study in 2017 by Stanford professor Richard Bloom showed that employees who worked from home were not only more productive than their office counterparts, but were also frequently less ill and took less time off work. In short, they achieved more in their uptime and had less downtime.
When it comes to the legal profession, firms have begun to make traction when it comes to allowing employees to work from home. Some are more restrictive than others, such as only limiting such privileges to Partners, but it's a promising sign to see that it has moved into an area of consideration for firms. Time will tell whether the expansive work-from-home that COVID-19 has created will dent the productivity of lawyers, but it will be difficult to measure comparatively and accurately in light of changing demand from clients and the potential of economic downturn.
New Generation, New Needs
Each new generation of lawyers entering into the profession brings with them a new set of priorities, values and career aspirations. For millennials, it’s clear that remote working is a core value for them, with nearly 75% saying it was an important policy for their recruiter to have. It's quite likely that the subsequent generation, Gen Z, will build on this trend and add to it new ways to increase productivity. Given that current trainees and NQs are to be the future Partners and lifeblood of the profession, it is surely only a matter of time that any current managerial resistance to the adoption for remote work will give over time.
Tech’s time to shine
Sweeping innovative changes in the legal profession are historically uncommon. The apparent disincentive for firms to improve efficiency under billable hour models alone has restricted the practical adoption of new technology when compared to the potential opportunities that existing tech could provide if experimented with and utilised fully. Alongside this, a reliance on in-person meetings for much of what lawyers do in place of tech alternatives - attending court, negotiating with counter/third parties and signing contracts - has fuelled this underdevelopment. This in turn restricts the number of tailored solutions being offered for this space, meaning that the likelihood the industry will be willing to undertake a shift to remote work by its own accord is low.
The silver lining in the current situation, however, is that this necessity for lawyers to work from home must in part be fulfilled by (admittedly straightforward/untailored) technology that has frequently been underused by firms - namely video conferencing, cloud-based collaborative tools, e-sign platforms and general workflow management. With all seniority levels of lawyers now being tasked with being comfortable using such tools as a result of self-isolation and lockdown, it would not be surprising to see a more welcome adoption toward such technology as and when the current restrictive COVID working climate relaxes.
In short, there’s no clear answer as to how attitudes toward remote working will fare post-pandemic - especially within the legal profession. Lawyers are known for being sticklers for tradition and risk-averse by nature. Additionally, many firms still give value to face time and in-person meetings. Despite this, it’s clear that the factors above may spark an upward trend in favouring remote work - if not a full-scale adoption, then at least a greater appreciation as to its merits in future.