The COVID-19 crisis has created major challenges and problems for law firms as it has for most businesses and professional service providers. But the way in which law firms have met the challenge is something all law firms can learn from. In this article by journalist Katharine Freeland the use of remote working is examined.
Katharine Freeland – As Covid-19 plunges the world into crisis, many businesses – including law firms – have had an abrupt immersion into the world of agile and remote working. Clifford Chance, Allen & Overy, Slaughter and May, Dechert, Simmons & Simmons, Taylor Wessing and many others have initiated enhanced global remote working policies due to the widespread disruption of the pandemic, either closing offices or encouraging people to work from home.
This is unprecedented, going far beyond what existing agile working policies were set up to achieve.
‘It’s one thing to have a small proportion of your workforce working remotely for short periods of time, but having hundreds working out of the office long-term takes things to a whole new level,’ says one insider at the London office of a global firm, which is encouraging all staff who can to work from home.
The IT and support systems on which agile working policies rely are now supporting thousands, rather than hundreds or dozens of people.
The crash of communication and collaboration platform Microsoft Teams when millions logged on after Europe was put into lockdown is indicative of the strain systems are under. And there is also the question of who is included in working-from-home arrangements. Secretarial staff? Receptionists? Knowledge management? The threat posed by Covid-19 has put the strategy of remote/agile working under the spotlight, pushing its parameters to untested limits.
The right to request flexible working patterns is a legal obligation – so providing alternative ways of working is already on most business radars. In calmer times this had developed into an important (but still minor) nudge-factor in changing the way we work.
For those without a set policy, the current crisis underlines the need to provide flexibility, if not for work/life balance, then for contingency planning. And it makes sense – few client-led professional services businesses stick to 9-to-5. Technology enables us to be contactable anywhere, any time.
For lawyers this means checking emails and taking calls early in the morning or late at night. Many law firms (and in-house teams) came to the realisation several years ago that, in return for this availability, there should be some recompense: an agile (usually combined with a flexible) working policy.
This is more than ‘hot-desking’ – although creating so-called ‘fluid’ working space as part of an office redesign may be part of it – because it focuses on embedding a flexible working mindset throughout the organisation.
‘The vision may vary for different businesses, but there are common themes: more for less; cost savings; improved service; productivity; better staff work/life integration; attracting best talent; being more resilient,’ says Paul Allsopp, managing director of the Agile Working Organisation. Examining how law firms such as Baker McKenzie, Linklaters, Osborne Clarke and Pinsent Masons’ freelance arm Vario have already implemented agile/remote working has delivered lessons for others in how to try to achieve ‘business as usual’ throughout the current crisis.
It is so important for partners to ‘role model’ agile working, to set the tone for more junior staff
Sarah Gregory, Baker McKenzie
First steps in Remote Working
The speed of the spread of Covid-19 has not allowed a considered transition to remote/agile working. Usually, when an organisation moves to, say, an agile working policy, the initial driver is feedback from employees, in particular younger lawyers who have grown up with flexible technology; and parents coping with the needs of young children.
Those who have worked in different business sectors before transferring to law are also well aware that agile working is more prevalent elsewhere, particularly in other professional services. And there are clear advantages to being more closely aligned with clients in terms of the synchronicity of response. ‘Clients are ahead of law firms in this regard – they expect agile working,’ says Matthew Kay, director of Vario.
Although changing the culture of the traditionally conservative law firm business model may seem like an uphill task, for some implementing an official agile working policy is just putting in the struts to support a change that was already happening.
Global law firms have been working in an agile way (whether official policy or not) for years. For example, one global US firm – while not having a firm-wide agile working policy – has a Singapore staff member based in Canada who can pick up work when the others have finished for the day.
Most businesses with established agile or remote working policies will have been through a robust evaluation process, gathering evidence to understand the opportunities and benefits, but also the barriers, risks and costs. This involves thorough internal and external research, and the examination of existing work practices, as well as engagement with employees, suppliers and clients.
‘Don’t take it that your assumptions about the way the workplace operates are correct,’ says Allsopp. ‘Consider culture, trust and empowerment, health and safety, working styles, home working, policies and protocols, using technology remotely and so on.’
Senior leaders must be invested
For any new working policy to be effective it has to have the engagement of senior leaders. ‘It is important to have strong advocates in management for alternative ways of working,’ says Kay. Strong oversight and the ability to review and adapt are also crucial.
‘You have to be comfortable with change,’ he says. An example of this is Linklaters, which in March 2019 removed the ‘service’ criteria for making a flexible working request, so that people can work flexibly from day one, without any explanation of why they are making the request.
‘This aligns with our approach to agile working,’ says Katie Tant, global diversity and inclusion adviser at Linklaters. ‘We think that agile working is for everyone. Part of this concept is the right to request formal flexible working open to all – regardless of length of service.’ She emphasises the importance of communication between teams when remote working to determine how they can work most effectively together – considering the needs of the client, the firm, the team and individuals.
Now that whole firms or departments are working remotely, willingness to continuously review and re-evaluate working practices is essential.
People go through seasons in life, from looking after young children to supporting elderly relatives. A flexible outlook to working can help people at all stages
Matthew Kay, Vario
Partners lead by example
Strong and vocal support of alternative ways of working from senior leaders is not enough though – they have to ‘walk the talk’.
‘It is so important for partners to “role model” agile working, to set the tone for more junior staff,’ says Sarah Gregory, diversity and inclusion partner at BakerMcKenzie, which introduced agile working across its offices in 2016. ‘Role-modelling’ means setting parameters: being transparent with team members about where you are – whether in the home office or at a school play – and when you are available. This ‘check-in’ is particularly important in the Covid-19 crisis, when multiple people are working from home and need to be coordinated.
Technology is a powerful enabler of remote working, without which we would still be tied to our office desk. Apart from the necessary security, it does not have to be particularly cutting-edge. Using laptops and remote portal logins to allow work away from the office, as well as online conferencing software to recreate physical meetings, allows people to participate interactively in ways that they could not just a few years ago.
It is important to use tech in the ‘right’ way, though, evaluating carefully whether your message would be better conveyed over the phone, email, in person or via video conference. ‘Sometimes, when conversing with junior members of the team it is useful to see them over videolink, so you can pick up if they are uncertain about something through their facial expressions,’ says Gregory.
Retaining a sense of ‘team’
The feeling of being part of the team and an active participant in the values and outlook of the organisation in which you work is important for most of us. In the immediate aftermath of a shock such as total or partial office closure, an established team may bond over the experience – proud that they are coping, showing how strong their team spirit is. Most teams will currently be in this phase if they are unable to be together physically.
But without thought and planning, the team’s cohesion comes under strain. Longer-term, retaining this sense of belonging in an agile workforce takes investment: in technology, time and effort to ensure that remotely located team members still feel interconnected.
‘At Linklaters, some of the teams in Asia have instigated a buddy system, where members of the team greet each other in the morning and discuss the plan for the day and what has been going on,’ says Tant. ‘That kind of regular communication helps to retain a sense of team and interconnectedness with the firm, even when working remotely.’
In the current climate of fear and uncertainty, many people thrust into remote working (particularly those who would prefer to be in the office) will need this sense of support and community with their peers.
Case study: Baker McKenzie
International firm Baker McKenzie was the first firm to close its London office when a staff member returned from Italy in February feeling unwell. It has now closed all but a few of its offices globally, with staff and partners working from home in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.
‘Because we have a longstanding flexible working programme including advanced technology for remote working, the firm’s operations will continue uninterrupted,’ it stated when announcing the closures.
Baker McKenzie has offered agile working to its entire headcount across the globe since 2016. The programme includes alternative working hours, remote working and regular working time outside the office. The decision to formalise agile working came after a global engagement survey among lawyers revealed a strong need for ‘flexible working’, including remote working and adjustable hours.
‘We already had a range of flexible arrangements but these tended to be those that were formally agreed – for example, part-time and reduced hours arrangements,’ says Sarah Gregory, diversity and inclusion partner at Baker McKenzie. ‘With our agile working programme, we introduced informal flexibility, such as working from home and also flexible start and finish times, which were adopted rapidly across our business.’
The move was a rebalancing exercise for the firm. ‘Our lawyers have to be very agile in responding to clients in different time zones,’ she says. ‘We feel it is only fair for our agile working policy to give them back some control over their work/life balance. Agile working is reviewed on a practice group basis, to determine what arrangement is needed to be put in place at any given time. The situation is continually reviewed and adjusted. No one size fits all.’
Changing with the seasons
There will always be situations in which a legal team finds a huge advantage in being ‘in the room’ together, such as conducting due diligence on archived documents, or preparing for a trial.
Events related to Covid-19 are removing that choice for many. Australia has closed the High Court in Canberra until August because of the virus, and ‘social distancing’ and self-isolation in the UK rapidly limited the ability of many to come together for key tasks before last week’s more comprehensive lockdown.
Organisations and managers are having to deal with the fact that remote or agile working does not suit everyone. ‘Communicating through email and phone calls all the time means that you can miss important nuances,’ says one practitioner in a global firm, currently enforcing home working. ‘It is not as productive as talking matters over in person.’
However, for many practice areas, even before the advent of the current crisis, embracing alternative ways of working has had obvious benefits. Organisations that are not doing this by choice should be reassured by the experience of many early adopters.
Flexibility aids the recruitment and retention of staff. It also goes a long way towards closing the gender pay gap – aiding diversity and inclusion – by enabling mothers to continue to work, and, potentially, ease back into full-time working when their children are older. The working life of older practitioners can also be extended through flexible/agile working. ‘People go through seasons in their life, from looking after young children to supporting elderly relatives,’ says Kay. ‘A flexible outlook to working can help people at all stages.’
Learning a new language
Flexible working is often defined as a personal benefit relating to work patterns which aims to restore work/ life balance and is frequently permission-based. The right to request flexible working is enshrined in law.
Agile working goes beyond flexible working. It is a business initiative focused on culture and mindset change. It is about doing work differently – not just doing the same work at an alternative time or place. It focuses on empowering staff and teams to find better ways of achieving results with minimal guidance or permission.
Home, mobile or remote working is having flexibility about the location of where you work.
Desk allocation terminology can be confusing, and organisations often have their own definitions. In general, the following meanings apply:
- Allocated desk is a desk allocated to a person (AKA ‘my desk’). For people whose work-style or job profile involves being mainly static in one position.
- Allocated hot desk is a team-shared desk. It allows teams to be allocated ‘neighbourhoods’.
- Unallocated hot desk is one anyone can turn up and use. It is not always easy to manage and is unpopular if this is the only offering for staff.
- Bookable hot desk is a desk that can be booked, perhaps to be near other colleagues for collaboration. Often for visiting or travelling staff.
- Warm desk is a preferred desk for an individual or members of a certain team (unofficially ‘my desk’ or ‘beach towelling’). Often frowned upon if used by others.
For a shift in work mindset to succeed, it needs to be embedded into the organisation with investment in the technological, emotional and physical (in terms of office set up) support required. Commitment to alternative ways of working should be at the heart of the business’s values, not just an add-on.
‘In our experience of introducing a change to more agile working practices, it has been important to make this part of the firm’s strategy and business objectives, not an HR policy,’ says Tant.
Allsopp also emphasises that agile working should be seen as a holistic business initiative, not just a property, HR or tech project. ‘It should not be sectional. Agile working touches and involves everything and everyone,’ he says.
If nothing else, the current crisis has forced changes on the legal profession that some had long argued would be beneficial. Jane Burton, chair of the Law Society’s Lawyers with Disabilities Division, explains: ‘The lack of and unwillingness to allow remote working prior to this crisis has caused many legal professionals to lose their careers and meant poverty and isolation.’
Now, she observes: ‘The majority of firms are finding the most innovative ways to work and stay in touch remotely. This was often the only “reasonable adjustment” those lawyers who lost their careers needed to pursue their work and avoid poverty and reliance on state benefits.’
Article first published on Law Gazette
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