Re-Thinking the Law Office in the (Hopefully) Post-COVID World

As the COVID crisis continues to rear its ugly head in seemingly regular two to three-month intervals, more and more business leaders are being forced to think about how they will operate going forward. One of the biggest questions, if not THE biggest, is what role will remote working play as we all slowly adjust to the coming “New Normal”?

Talking to my law firm clients all over the country, I have received a wide variety of responses when I ask them about their experience with having everyone work from home at various times over the last 7 months. Some say that business has been good, and they have not seen a noticeable decrease in productivity or quality of work. Others tell me they have seen a clear negative impact on their billable hours and general level of productivity.

A survey conducted earlier this year of attorneys, managers and staff at 25 law firms by Loeb Leadership says that 67% of the respondents agreed or strongly agreed with the statement “When we get through this crisis, I would like my job to stay remote even if it’s only for a few days a week.” Furthermore, when asked to respond to the statement “I feel confident I can contribute to the firm in the same way as I do when I am in the office”, 65% responded Agree or Strongly Agree. Not surprisingly, to this same question, only 31% of partner/managing partners agreed or strongly agreed.

Considering the differing perceptions of various constituencies within the firm, how should a firm proceed?

First, if your current office lease is not up for renewal anytime soon, take your time. Don’t rush decisions that could have a long-term impact on the firm’s future. Be sure to get input from all stakeholders and think through how the results of these decisions play out in the long run. How did your team feel about their experience over these past months? What are their thoughts on remote working in the future?

Second, get analytical. Look at the data from the past 7 months and compare them to last year. Do you see marked differences in any particular areas? Did certain departments fair better than others, and if so, why? How did people in the various roles perform? Do you see a difference in productivity between certain parts of the team when compared to others? There may be some practice areas that do very well working remotely, while others do not.

Next, do some research. What are other firms doing? What are your clients comfortable with? There are many organizations that serve the legal profession that are conducting surveys and producing reports on every possible angle of this issue. Take advantage of this free resource and make informed decisions.

Depending on the size of the firm, complexity of its practice, and its geographic footprint, this project can vary wildly in its level of difficulty, but all firms are going to need to address this issue, sooner or later.

Considerations

Pro:

Potentially huge reduction in real estate expenses – There are many outcomes that are being bandied about, but one thing everyone I have talked to agree on is—firms will be taking this experience as an opportunity to reduce the amount of office space they currently use.

Recruiting – By offering flexible remote working policies, a firm could attract talent that otherwise might have been out-of-reach.

Savings in labor costs – By working remotely and fully leveraging the available technology, there may be opportunities to eliminate some positions that may not be needed in a more “virtual” setting.

Work/Life Balance – By eliminating commutes and other activities related to commuting, team members should be getting several hours per week back that they can devote to family and other personal pursuits, but…see below.

Savings for employees – By not commuting every day, employees will be spending less on gas or other transportation related expenses, lunches outside the office, dry cleaning, parking, and I am sure many other expenses that will either go away or be greatly reduced if they are working from home a significant amount of the time.

Con:

Firm culture and morale – Other than reduction in real estate expenses, the impact of working remotely on a firm’s culture and morale is the subject that comes up most often when discussing this issue with clients. There is no way around it, humans are social animals. The need for social interaction is built into our DNA. Losing personal connections with people we have worked with over the years can have a significant impact on a person’s sense of wellbeing.

Work/Life Balance – Although having extra time available for personal use is great, losing the line between work and home presents a whole new set of issues. I have heard from many people that since they have been working from home more, they find themselves working at times they would normally be spending with family or attending to other personal matters.

Expense – If your firm has not already invested in the technology to make working from home as productive as possible, this could be a significant investment. Beyond the obvious laptop or desktop computer, you must think about high quality audio and video equipment. The camera and microphone that come with most computers do not deliver the quality that you want if the majority of your meetings are held virtually.

Liability – With employees accessing confidential information from multiple locations, a firm must make sure that the data is secure and client information protected. This could mean more investment in network security and changes to employee policies.

This crisis presents an incredible opportunity for law firms to fast-forward their transition into the future of work, whatever that may be. But, along with the opportunity comes many potential pitfalls that must be taken into serious account. No matter what the future holds, I’m sure it will be both challenging and exciting.

If your firm is currently wrestling with the issues discussed in this article, please feel free to reach out to the Legato team at info@asklegato.com or, (800) 863-5272.