For the legal industry, the pandemic ushered in the unthinkable: For the first time, on a large scale, the practice of law would take place outside of law offices. As shutdowns swept across the world, lawyers once tethered to their desks found themselves working at home for months on end. Although the legal industry was among the slowest to embrace remote work policies and technologies, the pandemic forced widespread adoption without the expected consequences.
Case in point: Large law firms in 2020 saw net income rise by an average of 10% as demand for transactional work boomed and firms saved money on business travel, according to a survey by Wells Fargo Private Bank’s legal specialty group.
Returning to a new normal
As the world and the legal industry creep back to normal, both law firms and lawyers building their own businesses must embrace remote work to build stronger, smarter, more inclusive, and more successful practices. Flexible work arrangements allow for the recruitment of best-in-class talent, foster productivity, and help prepare for growth with scalable technology.
While lawyers long flocked to big cities searching for the best opportunities, the pandemic scattered talent to the wind. At the same time, demographic trends show large swaths of people leaving the largest, most expensive urban areas searching for a better quality of life in smaller cities. Law firms and businesses that once secured the best legal talent near their headquarters are now at a disadvantage as top talent is spread across a wider geographic area. The only way to attract and retain this talent is with a remote work model that allows teams to do their best work no matter where they are.
“Although job offerings might reach candidates outside a firm’s area, the prospect of someone being willing to relocate is likely not in the organization’s favor,” the Association of Legal Administrators said in an April white paper.
What’s more, many professionals are making remote work flexibility a top priority. Some are willing to quit to hold onto it. While lawyers aren’t quite as drastic, the desire is still there. So too is the productivity long thought to be the cost of flexibility. According to a mid-2020 survey conducted by Loeb Leadership, 67% of attorneys polled wanted to continue working from home at least some part of the week, and 92% said they believed they were meeting client expectations.
For many, that choice is more than a nice-to-have.
“This assumption that full-time, in-person work is preferable in all circumstances generally ignores or excludes the lived experiences of those who are balancing work with individual challenges, disabilities, or significant external obligations such as caring for themselves, young children, aging parents, or others,” said the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Standing Committee on Lawyer Well-Being.
Embracing flexibility and technology
According to research by Harvard Business Review, flexibility can also lead to increased productivity for knowledge workers who report higher engagement with work when they can manage their own time.
None of it is possible without technology. Zoom, Cisco Webex, and Microsoft Teams make it possible to be face-to-face without being face-to-face. At the same time, the remote requirement work pushed law firms to revamp their technology infrastructure. Many replaced desktops with laptops and moved from in-house data storage to cloud-based platforms that allowed teams to collaborate no matter their locations. A 2021 Thomson Reuters Institute study of how law firms fared during the pandemic found those that continued to embrace technology performed the best throughout the industry upheaval of 2020.
“Those firms that were not pandemic performers… did not increase their investment in technology,” the report said. “Resisting investments like technology are risks that aren’t likely to pay off — remote workers will become less productive if needed modern and effective technology is lacking.”
Still, vast swaths of the legal industry are sounding the horn for attorneys to return to their offices. Morgan Stanley Chief Legal Officer Eric Grossman recently sent a memo demanding outside counsel’s lawyers return to their offices. In April, Greenberg Traurig executives hit the road on a nationwide RV tour to ease staff back into their offices.
While not all law firms will follow the lead of Palo Alto-based Cooley LLP, which is allowing its lawyers to work fully remote if they choose, those building their practice or looking forward to a time after the pandemic should rely on the evidence of 2020. With the right pieces of the puzzle in place, remote lawyers and law firms can not only survive, but also be prepared to compete in a marketplace that has grown beyond the constraints of the traditional law firm model.