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Law firm leaders assess the future of work as Covid lockdowns recede

Rachael JohnsonTuesday 5 October 2021

With many jurisdictions now moving out of lockdown and office working back on the agenda, law firm leaders are considering their approach to the future of work and the challenges it’ll bring.

At the beginning of the pandemic, most law firm leaders feared that homeworking enforced by lockdown wouldn’t be successful. However, many have seen equal if not improved productivity. ‘I think the start point was panic,’ says Babatunde Ajibade, Chair of the IBA African Regional Forum and Managing Partner of S.P.A Ajibade & Co in Nigeria. He adds that ‘it hasn’t been anywhere near as bad as we thought it was going to be.’

In fact, the pandemic proved that flexible working is effective. ‘I think we can now say with confidence that [the pandemic has] accelerated the trend where the legal sector will finally embrace more hybrid and flexible working methods,’ says Andrew Darwin, Global Co-Chairman and Senior Partner at DLA Piper.

A range of factors are at play as law firm leaders plan a return to the office. Many feel that collaboration is important for lawyers and works better in an office environment. Law firm leaders also argue that remote working doesn’t offer junior lawyers the same learning opportunities as working in person alongside senior lawyers. Some leaders have struggled to uphold their firm’s culture, ethics and values when working remotely. On the other hand, they acknowledge the benefits of homeworking and expect that encouraging employees back to the office will be a challenge.

Most law firms are adopting a hybrid working model, which combines homeworking with office working.

Darwin describes a framework for flexible working at DLA Piper called ‘work smart plus’, where lawyers work three days in the office and two days at home. This framework can be refined by individual lawyers depending on their role and the team they are part of. He argues that collaboration can’t be planned and hopes this framework will facilitate it happening naturally.

[The pandemic has] accelerated the trend where the legal sector will finally embrace more hybrid and flexible working methods

Andrew Darwin
Global Co-Chairman and Senior Partner, DLA Piper

Rolandas Valiunas is Co-Chair of the IBA Law Firm Management Committee and Managing Partner of Ellex in Lithuania. He advocates for a full return to the office to inspire people to work together and views the loss of team spirit as a risk. His firm is stipulating lawyers must be in the office on Tuesday or Wednesday and can work another two days at home. He would like to see more days in the office once vaccination levels in Lithuania permit.

Vaccination status is also a factor for Hanim Hamzah, Co-Chair of the IBA Law Firm Management Committee and Regional Managing Partner of ZICO Law Network in Singapore. She says South East Asia is behind other regions in getting back to business because of the availability of vaccinations. Once it’s possible, Hamzah agrees that the emphasis should be on office working. ‘Ultimately it’s cohesive; it’s a place of work,’ she says.

Declan Black, Managing Partner of Mason Hayes & Curran in Ireland, describes the ‘high trust, high flexibility model’ that his firm has adopted, saying, ‘we’ll expect high productivity as the outcome.’

Black is basing his approach on the demonstrated success of flexible working during the pandemic and a belief that if you ‘give people flexibility, they will respond like adults.’ The policy will not stipulate specific days to be in the office and its management will be decentralised, sitting with heads of department.

Zoya Todorova, a managing partner at Dimitrov, Petrov & Co in Bulgaria, says having regard for employee mental health has influenced her approach to flexible working. She says the pandemic made the firm’s leadership more in tune with employee wellbeing. ‘It’s really a topic that needs to go through the whole organisation,’ she says.

Cyril Shroff, Managing Partner of Cyril Amarchand Mangaldas in India, believes mental health isn’t being talked about enough and describes keeping employee morale up during remote working as ‘our number one challenge.’

Meanwhile, ‘the war for talent is a strong as ever,’ according to Darwin, with some firms offering very large salaries.

Post-pandemic, the level of flexibility a firm is willing to offer will become an important differentiator when attracting talent, almost as much as remuneration. Shroff argues that parts of the workforce could ultimately work on an entirely contractual basis. In this climate, it’ll be important for leaders to inspire talent to want to work for their firm.

Most law firm leaders don’t expect to return to pre-pandemic levels of travel. This leaves questions about the best ways to maintain existing client relationships and attract new business when conference attendance or face-to-face meetings are not as frequent. The answer could be to take a more considered approach to travel, making the most of the trips lawyers do make. Ajibade says he will put more emphasis on ‘establishing an electronic presence’ to provide more opportunities to connect with clients online.

Despite the upheaval of the pandemic, on the whole law firms have been very busy. Valiunas believes current rates of growth will eventually slow and says law firms should be preparing for this by finding their next avenue of expansion while also capitalising on current growth.

However, Darwin is more confident. ‘I don’t think we’d say there’s a worrying cliff edge that the legal sector is heading towards,’ he argues. Shroff agrees, describing the current momentum as a medium-term trend.

Competition from different providers of legal services and the rise of technology, automation and artificial intelligence are stand-out risks for the legal profession. Law firm leaders will need to rethink how they offer and price their services to remain competitive. This could mean concentrating on the more complex work that in-house teams will continue to outsource. For Hamzah, balancing the rising cost of talent with the demand from clients for lower pricing can call into question the traditional equity partnership law firm structure.

There has been concern that automation will replace junior lawyers, but Darwin doesn’t see that happening just yet. ‘There isn’t really a killer application in the legal sector […] that’s going to replace thousands of junior lawyers,’ he says.

Law firm leaders are aware of the role of environment, social and governance (ESG) issues in attracting talent and these are beginning to influence panel selection. However, Black argues it’s not yet influencing every aspect of how work is won. ‘I wait to be convinced that someone will lose the best deal or the best case for failings on ESG,’ he says.

Black says law firm leaders shouldn’t lose sight of the fundamentals. For him Covid showed that ‘high quality lawyers delivering first class service; that’s what wins you the business.’

Image: Halfpoint C / Shutterstock.com

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