This time last year, we released our state of the nation report on the challenges facing law firms and how four areas of cultural change could provide the answers – introducing flexible work spaces, increasing law-preneurship, deploying smart legal tech and rethinking people strategy. We started a debate across the industry, with commentary led by the Financial Times (paywall). A year on, as the challenges we identified previously have been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic and resulting lockdown, what’s changing?
Flexible work spaces
Overnight in March this year, working remotely became the default position for every law firm in the UK and many worldwide. After years of routinely insisting that spending time in the office was a necessity, it was no longer possible. The result? Only 12% of lawyers surveyed by The Lawyer felt they were less productive and services to businesses continued almost as normal. That comes as no surprise to us at Obelisk, we’ve been demonstrating that remote work or “homesourcing” can be an optimal solution for both organisations and employees for almost 10 years now.
Some firms are now looking at doing away with office spaces altogether, with Slater and Gordon announcing they will reduce the size of their London offices, while others are now planning a return to the office, with considerations including staggered start times, one-way systems for moving around the office and guidance to wear masks. With guidelines still recommending physical distancing for the immediate future, clients’ and colleagues’ appetite for the in-person meetings, networking events and hospitality that have traditionally been perceived as the mainstay of business development activity remains very much to be seen.
With a reduction in billable hours over recent months in the markets most badly hit by the pandemic, and the prospect of a V-shaped recovery for the economy fading, there is now a greater need than ever for lawyers in practice to adopt a more entrepreneurial mind-set – and get closer to their customers’ strategy. Obelisk’s own pandemic poll found that in-house counsel were looking for their legal service providers to be more agile, provide more insight and information tailored to managing future risks, and offer discounts.
This crisis has already led to firms failing in the UK, with McMillan Williams being acquired by Taylor Rose after going into administration. Prudence has been the large firms’ first response, with most in the UK deferring partner drawings, trainee programmes, reducing working hours and/or pay, and furloughing staff in an attempt to manage their high fixed-cost base. However, with furlough schemes due to taper off and limits to their reserves, firms will have to innovate as well as conserve if they are to survive.
The switch to remote working has put the spotlight on firms’ technical capabilities. Most obviously, their ability to communicate with clients has come under scrutiny. With the rise in video conferencing for both client meetings and court hearings comes serious questions about security, as well as the deluge of photographs of dress-up Zoom meetings and comedy backgrounds on LinkedIn.
The crisis has also highlighted a more general point around the lack of consolidation in the law-tech space and the issues this creates for end-clients in-house. Busy in-house counsel don’t want to have to learn to use myriad different apps and tools in order to communicate, collaborate and pick up work from their service providers.
The pressure on in-house counsel to provide more strategic advice to their businesses as the risk of doing business increases will also act as an accelerant to the adoption of contract management and automation tools that can help them free up their time. As the technical sophistication of their customers grows, law firms will have to adapt or be left behind.
The fact that everyone is working from home and losing the commute should be good news for equality of opportunity and lawyers’ mental health. Sadly this isn’t necessarily the case, especially for lawyers with caring responsibilities, who still tend to be disproportionately women. “I am the only female solicitor in a team of five. The other solicitors’ partners manage the homeschooling for their children but I have only been able to manage my workload by working early morning and late evening”, a respondent to the First 100 Years poll stated, continuing “I don’t want to stand out as having performed more poorly than my male colleagues if there are redundancies later but I don’t know how long I can keep it up. I am completely exhausted and there is no end in sight.” As the “unlock” continues, there remain issues in terms of access to childcare and elder care that risk setting women’s careers back and undoing the limited progress the industry has made in increasing diversity over the last 10 years.
Even where caring isn’t an issue, lawyers report additional strain on their mental health and well-being caused by coronavirus, with LawCare reporting half of all calls to its helpline in March/April were pandemic-related. Some firms are leading the way with provision of additional services and support, including weekly social calls, dedicated resources and campaigns to promote mental well-being and 1:1 calls from senior partners. However, too many remain quiet in terms of support for their employees, both working and furloughed. For an industry that has people at the core of its product, this crisis has brought into focus the gap between organisations that truly put people first and those that have made changes only at a superficial level.
What does the future hold?
At the time of writing, there is still no vaccine for the coronavirus and it is too early in the easing of the lockdown in the US and UK to tell whether or not we have managed to control its spread enough for normal life as we once knew it to resume. What we do know is that there are times of economic hardship ahead, with record unemployment, high consumer uncertainty and certain sectors, such as travel, tourism and hospitality, unlikely to recover in the short-term. This, combined with the continued (and possibly accelerated) rise in automation poses new challenges. How do we distribute work that needs to be done fairly across our working population? How do we ensure that more people are not shut out of the professional world, by dint of who they are, their health or their responsibilities for others? What is the role of law firms and in-house legal leaders in defining a more sustainable economy, both in terms of impact on people and on the environment, as we reactivate? How will we make the most of local talent, now that homesourcing narrows the gap between the cost of carrying out work in the UK and offshoring it?
We have been given a unique, if painful, opportunity to reflect, re-evaluate and re-set. We have seen old barriers and preconceptions upturned by the events of the last 12 weeks. Now we must resist the temptation to flock back to them or create new ones. In re-imagining the world of legal work, beyond the traditional office or courtroom, Obelisk believes:
- The legal industry must embrace new ways of routing work to talented people and retain vital skills and experience
- We must continue to invest in innovative and inclusive ways of bringing people from all backgrounds into legal careers
- We must explode the constraints of the traditional career path and the billable hour, allowing flexible opportunities for all and the ability to better accommodate work and responsibilities outside it at different stages in our lives.
Lawyers’ skills in protecting businesses and individuals from risk and injustice will be more important than ever as we recover from the pandemic. Ensuring access to these skills that builds value, both financial and social, and that works for firms, their customers and their people, will require imagination and resilience.
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