As lockdown restrictions are beginning to ease, many in the legal sector are thinking about how and when to return to their offices and what the new “normal” will look like. There is also growing recognition that even after lockdown fades, lasting changes – from flexible working to lost jobs – will emerge.
Will the pandemic help change ingrained working practices? Law is a stressful, results-driven and competitive profession and many firms still have an inflexible, “always-on” work culture. But allowing more staff to work from home — even for part of the week — could help retain more people at senior levels.
Ian Biddle, Senior Financial Consultant at Wesleyan, specialist financial mutual for Lawyers looks at what this pandemic has taught his lawyer clients about flexible working.
Working from home for lawyers can be tough
Lawyers’ mental health is taking a hit as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, with partners and associates feeling stressed and isolated.
According to LawCare, a UK legal mental health charity, calls about the effects of coronavirus have accounted for half of its helpline traffic since March 10. “One of the main things people are calling about is the pressure to go into the office. We even had one lawyer telling us that their family member had symptoms, but they were still forced go into the office,” says, Ann Charlton, Co-ordinator for LawCare. Others are dealing with anxiety connected to homeworking, she says. “Particularly younger lawyers are feeling that they are on their own and haven’t got someone they can easily ask about things.”
Most solicitors — and particularly more junior lawyers — are used to working closely within a team, often under high-pressure and close-knit conditions that can be difficult to replicate in a virtual world.
Supervision of apprentices and trainee lawyers is an issue for many firms now working from home. A senior partner from a large London firm said, “Transfer of knowledge continues to be an issue; ordinarily we would have been planning to take on more apprentices, paralegals, and trainees at this time of year, and we’re not doing that this year, because we can’t supervise them how we would like to and video conferencing is not the same as physically learning on the job in an office setting.”
How to get flexible working right
Many large law firms already had the infrastructure in place for employees to work from home, making the move to doing so full time during the pandemic more straightforward. However remote working once or twice a week is very different from staying at home every single day.
So many companies had sorted the technology and business practicalities but less so the people implications. Managing the impact on mental health when isolated needed to be looked at quickly by firms.
Many embraced this and asked partners to set up regular calls with teams and find out how people are managing. Video calls and video conferencing were rarely used before the pandemic but now they are part of making flexible working a success. Firms are embracing technology more than ever before and accessing global messaging tools, encouraging one-to-one coffee mornings with junior lawyers and hosting personal trainer and yoga sessions that lawyers can dial into and enjoy together.
The positive side of forced flexibility is that many law firms are now finding they have a better understanding of people’s lives and their personal circumstances in a way they would not have known before or even asked about.
Smaller and regional firms at the start of the pandemic were very much office-based operations with limited capability regarding remote access and so had quite a task on their hands upgrading IT systems.
This short-term pain for these firms did payoff: “We are a medium-sized regional law firm and managing to get most of our staff working remotely in the first few weeks of lockdown was no mean feat. But it was worth it, and our new agile working model will be our ‘new normal’ going forward.” said one senior partner. “Our staff are happier with the flexibility of working hours and we have completely changed our agile working system to suit people’s personal circumstances with childcare for example. In fact, productivity and client relationships have had a positive impact because of these changes.
Many of our lawyers are seeing their clients more than ever before due to the ease of video conferencing and their relationships are growing stronger.”
Also, over the last few months a lot of law professionals have taken a good look at their homes and realised the need for more space as families working side-by-side is here to stay. Coronavirus has changed peoples homebuying priorities and many lawyers are looking to move or expand their current space to accommodate flexible working needs. Many homebuyers rejoiced at the news of the cut to Stamp Duty in England and Northern Ireland and have speeded up this process.
Long-term positive changes to flexible working will come from this pandemic and this will be an opportunity to discover new, more agile ways of working. There will always be a need for human interaction, and nothing will ever beat face-to-face contact in this profession but what the pandemic has shown is that flexibility can happen and the old culture of long and late nights in the office can be a thing of the past.