How is the legal world adapting to remote working?
Sat 13 March 21
Coronavirus (officially known as Covid-19) is having a profound effect upon many facets of society and everyday life, not least in terms of how people work. A whole spate of companies around the world have already asked their office-based employees to work from home through the pandemic, starting with Silicon Valley giants including Google, Microsoft, Twitter, Apple and Amazon.
The legal sector has also taken this responsible step, with Magic Circle law firms Clifford Chance, Linklaters, Allen & Overy and Slaughter and May all encouraging their staff to work at home. Commenting, a spokesperson for Allen & Overy said the firm was:
“strongly encouraging all partners and staff in its London office to take advantage of its existing flexible working arrangements to work from home for the next few weeks in response to the spread of Covid-19.”
Many more businesses across many sectors are expected to follow suit to protect their workers, as governments impose increasingly restrictive measures upon the movement of citizens in an effort to reduce the burden on stretched health services.
With Public Health England (PHE) expecting the Coronavirus epidemic to continue until spring 2021, the new remote working policies being adopted are likely to remain in place as a long-term measure, and may gradually become the status quo for law firms which haven’t already embraced flexible working. Indeed some commentators argue that the world of work more broadly could change forever, with the pandemic acting as a sort of catalyst to speed up the shift towards flexible working. Discussing the work-from-home movement in China, which was the first country affected by the virus, Zhang Xiaomeng, associate professor of organisational behaviour at the Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business in Beijing, believes the impact could be even more far reaching:
“The Covid-19 outbreak is just another chance for companies to re-examine the relationship between companies and employees, and to elevate their corporate culture to be mutually beneficial.”
The legal sector is arguably particularly in need of reforming its corporate culture and business structures, not least in terms of the relationship with senior partners and junior fee earners; the partnership model is increasingly being called into question and dispersed law firms such as Keystone Law, as well as sole practitioners and boutique firms, are on the rise.
Lawyers are by and large able to carry out their work from any location at any time, making them ideal candidates for agile working. Much of the core work of legal professionals involves communication, research, administration and critical thinking, all of which are tasks which do not generally require any specific physical presence. So the legal sector is particularly well placed to take advantage of flexible working, and its workflows should not be overly disrupted by the Coronavirus epidemic as they shift to home working patterns.
A vast array of tools which enable remote working for lawyers are already available. Cloud-based practice management platforms and accounting software can easily be integrated into the infrastructure of many firms, allowing their fee earners to work as efficiently from home as in the office. Client meetings can be conducted via videoconferencing, and a plethora of office productivity suites can help legal teams work together on cases from different locations. Meanwhile digital dictation products* can dispense with the need for on-site secretarial support, allowing legal secretaries and administrative staff to offer assistance to fee earners without either party being in the office.
Coronavirus has already had a devastating impact upon many families and businesses, and the global challenge will continue for many months to come. Although law firms cannot expect business as usual any time soon, the ability for lawyers, as well as their administrative and practice management staff, to shift their everyday duties from the office to their homes means that most firms should be able to weather the storm. One silver lining may be that flexible working finally becomes a viable option for many fee earners and this trend could continue to transform the working lives for generations of lawyers to come.
Many of the younger entrants to the legal profession - as well as their more seasoned colleagues who do not want to be restricted to the 9-5 office routine - have been increasingly driving the demand for flexible working in law firms over recent years. Some of the more traditional legal establishments which have hitherto been reluctant to embrace new ways of working, will now have to seriously consider a transition to home working, at least for the next few months. Whether or not any changes become permanent stands to be seen.
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