As the lockdown restrictions are beginning to ease, many in the legal sector are considering when and how (and maybe even "if") they should return to their offices and "normal" working practices. We examine the likely short-term and long-term challenges faced by law firms in the "post lockdown" world.
The short-term - the return to the office
When the lockdown was introduced in March 2020, law firms had quickly to transfer their fee earners and staff to remote working, and (despite some inevitable IT challenges) most firms managed this transition successfully.
At present, the UK Government's advice is that those who can work from home should do so, and for many law firm staff "working from home" will remain the reality for the foreseeable future. However, firms are of course considering what they will do in the next phase, with many surveying staff, conducting risk assessments and putting in place transition plans for when some sort of return to the office becomes possible. As a vaccine or a treatment might not arrive for some time, any return to the office may be limited, and will take place against a background of continued risk of Covid transmission. Firms will therefore need to perform a health and safety assessment, and adapt their offices and working practices to minimise this risk.
Both the Law Society (here) and the UK government (here) have provided guidance on what firms should to do to prepare for a return to the office, and firms will need to consider this as part of their planning. We provide a short summary of the guidance below.
In terms of "physical adaptations", both the Law Society and the UK government suggest that the following be considered:
Firms will also need to adapt their working practices, and the following changes are suggested:
Other potential steps are more controversial and include requiring masks to be worn in communal spaces or temperature testing staff on arrival. Of course these measures to protect health and safety raise employment issues in turn. For example firms must be wary of unintentionally discriminating against disabled employees, if physical adaptations effectively impede them working in the office. Similarly, firms need to be careful about discrimination in taking decisions as to who can and must return, in circumstances where some of the workforce may be reluctant to, others may have ongoing caring responsibilities and others may be in a higher-risk category because of age or a health condition. For those who remain at home, even as others return to the office, careful thought will need to be given to how to support them. This will be both to ensure that they are not unfairly disadvantaged and to ensure that they are enabled fully to perform their roles from home (for example by the provision of upgraded IT).
The long-term - How might working practices change in the future?
For some firms and staff, the experience of remote working on a long-term basis has been a pleasant surprise. Some have enjoyed skipping the commute, and have increased their productivity. Others though have found working from home to be a lonely experience, and they have missed the opportunity to meet with their colleagues and clients in person.
A number of companies, including many in the technology sector such as Twitter and Facebook, have announced plans to allow their employees to work from home permanently. Whilst only one law firm has so far stated that their London employees will do likewise, there are clearly potential advantages to allowing staff to work remotely for at least part of the working week. Staff may prefer the flexibility this provides, particularly as regards their lifestyle and in some cases family responsibilities. Without the need to commute in every day, the number of locations where staff can live will increase, and some staff may take the opportunity to move to cheaper and more rural areas. Firms may also be able to reduce the amount of office space they need in expensive city centre locations, and without the limit of geographic location, they can widen the pool of potential recruits.
However, there are inevitably going to be some downsides. Working from home may have proved easy for some because they had already built up "social capital" with their colleagues and clients before lockdown. That social capital may decline as time goes on. Maintaining relationships with clients, and meeting new clients, may also prove more difficult for as long as "social distancing" remains in place.
Remote working may also prove a problem for more junior staff. Much of the practical training junior staff receive comes from working closely with more senior colleagues, and observing how they operate. Even if junior staff are still required to attend an office every day, their development may suffer if their senior colleagues are working predominantly from home. The right mix of remote and office working will be different for each firm and each area of practice, and we expect that firms will experiment with this in the coming months. However, after the lockdown experience, increased flexible working is likely to be here to stay.
Beyond that issue lie a number of wider issues about the provision of legal services in the new era. The financial pressure on clients is likely to translate into pressure on law firms to offer alternative fee arrangements in place of the traditional hourly billing model. Similarly, the way in which technology has enabled remote working is likely to intensify the focus on the ways in which new tech can automate work done by junior lawyers. This in turn will lead to a focus on the ways in which (more senior) lawyers add value to their client in ways no machine can replicate – for example through judgment, empathy and creativity – and raise questions about how that value can be recognised in a way that both makes the client happy and makes a profit for the firm. These were shifts that were afoot already, but have undoubtedly been accelerated by the pandemic. The firms which emerge best from the current crisis are going to be the ones which recognise and respond to that rather than simply seek to return to the previous status quo. The pandemic has undoubtedly brought all sorts of personal and professional difficulties – but in the aftermath of those challenges comes the opportunity for reconsideration and renewal. As John F Kennedy said: "When written in Chinese, the word "crisis" is composed of two characters - one represents danger and one represents opportunity".