As we emerge from the pandemic, businesses and law firms across the globe are being strategic about creating new rules for the future.
Most law firms seem to understand that flexibility is imperative to their talent strategy moving forward, and that the market for talent is highly competitive with candidates and employees alike demanding flexibility.
The challenging part of the conversation for law firm and legal department leaders is how to implement flexibility in a way that maximizes their ability to serve clients, develop talent, and support engagement of all firm members. The ultimate goal is to apply the lessons they’ve learned during the pandemic to structure the best future for their firm, their business, and the legal industry as a whole.
Flexibility has been (and can continue to be) successful
Many firm members have been able to maintain high levels of productivity while working remotely. Technology has allowed many legal professionals to work and connect effectively across locations, and attorneys have reported that they are often able to focus better when there are fewer in-person distractions. Also, the lack of a long work commute has translated into more time to dedicate to work. Further, in a profession known to grapple with well-being, many lawyers and staff members have experienced significant mental health benefits because of working from home.
In this four-piece Special Edition of Practice Innovations, we’ll examine the challenges as the legal industry emerges from the pandemic crisis
Law firm leaders too have welcomed the unexpected benefits of watching expenses such as meals, travel, and entertainment drop significantly, while larger cost items like real estate are being reconsidered.
Remote work has also opened up new opportunities. Many associates across the industry are now taking part in depositions and client meetings with greater frequency, since the virtual format makes that much easier. Some associates found it easier to approach their mentors electronically, through chat or video applications, than to walk into a partner’s office. Meanwhile, some partners have been able to connect with clients virtually more frequently, and remote work has also strengthened relationships among firm members across offices, building better collaboration. Remote arrangements also opened up the potential to recruit or retain associates in other markets, which could significantly reduce recruiting and development costs.
Remote work has (and will continue to) also come with challenges
However, not everyone has transitioned effectively to remote work. Some associates have struggled with their well-being, finding remote work to be profoundly isolating. Others struggled with longer hours, or experienced blurred boundaries between work and home life. Now that they are able to work from home, there is less to hold them back from working late nights and on weekends. Others are seeing a change in their workload in that they are not receiving assignments they might have if they had been in the office, and are not proactively reaching out to fill their plates. While a partner may have previously staffed someone on a case when they struck up a conversation in the hall or saw them at a firm event, in a virtual environment they may be inclined to send work to those with whom they are most familiar.
Partners and associates alike have expressed concerns that over time, these dynamics could lead to fewer opportunities for associates to develop the skills and the sponsors that are so critical to advancement within an organization. Although associates may be working just as many hours, the quality of those hours could differ; in particular, if some associates are in the office every day and others work remotely most of the time, we may see disparities in how quickly in-office associates develop skills and relationships compared to those working remotely. The fear is that the industry will see unintended consequences of the old adage — out of sight out of mind — reflected in associate advancement.
Law firm leaders need to realize that nurturing new relationships and developing the right skills virtually takes longer and requires a lot more planning and inclusive thinking.
A hybrid environment will require creativity and strategic thinking
Hybrid work environments will more than likely become the norm in the future, with most employees spending at least some time working remotely and some time in the office. As law firm leaders consider how to design that environment so that it works well for everyone, they should leverage the evident successes of remote work and take steps to mitigate the concerns. For example, to maximize the benefits of informal interactions, teams can designate one or more days each week as “in-office” days in which everyone should be in the office. Those days can then focus on collaboration, training, and teambuilding. Firm members can then have autonomy on other days to decide where they will work most effectively based on their working style and the tasks they need to perform.
Firm leaders will also have to be vigilant to ensure no one is left behind in a hybrid environment. Many law firms have worked hard to develop systems during the pandemic to closely monitor work allocation while conducting more frequent check-ins with associates. While those should continue, there will be a need for additional mechanisms to manage hybrid teams. These will likely include:
- Providing training for managers and partners on tools to maintain cohesive and inclusive team relationships, provide feedback and mentoring virtually, and distribute opportunities equitably both to in-office and remote workers.
- Offering guidance for associates on how to obtain feedback, maintain relationships, and stay top-of-mind for assignments while also setting boundaries and adopting habits to avoid work burnout.
- Remaining mindful of how important it is to have frequent communication and provide immediate and direct feedback when leaders observe or experience problems.
This is just the beginning
Legal organization leaders across the industry are all doing their best to design policies and systems to make flexibility work a success for everyone. This is new for everyone, and even with the most thorough research, planning, and input, no one can predict all the consequences of a post-pandemic hybrid environment.
Leaders have to be willing to evaluate a particular plan’s effectiveness and revisit plans in whole or in part. To measure the success of flexible work options, law firms should collect data on the use of flexibility, productivity, performance, promotions, utilization, and engagement. It will also be important to review the data with an eye toward equity, to make sure they have not unintentionally created systems that disproportionately impact any underrepresented groups.
Also, if they find any concerning trends or opportunities for improvement, they should adjust going forward.
Today’s law firms have a genuine opportunity to achieve a number of different business goals and to continually ask themselves what is working, what is not — and most importantly why. As all firms move forward in this new environment and learn to embrace the change they never thought they could, honesty and transparency will be key in creating meaningful solutions that align with firms’ goals and values and that allows them to provide the best legal service and advice for clients in every area.