Lawyers have been working “remotely” for decades — from the courts, in their cars, from suburban outposts, at clients’ offices and, yes, from home. We used to call them mobile lawyers or even e-lawyers. (Now we just call them lawyers.) The difference today is that the remote or hybrid work models being discussed affect the entire law firm ecosphere — beyond the partners to the business professionals and support staff. So, the question isn’t how to support the talent on the road, but how to manage and support the whole team — keeping people working together productively and happily from wherever they may be. How is your practice handling the remote work versus back-to-the-office question? We’ll be sharing stories and ideas over the next several months, so let us know at email@example.com. — Ed.
Transitioning to Remote Work Operations
The pandemic has proved that fears of increased presenteeism — something that existed in offices before COVID-19 — have been largely unfounded. Firms moved from a 100% default office setup to an entirely virtual working space almost overnight during the height of the pandemic. Although the sudden shift presented its fair share of challenges, it was doable — even revealing benefits to remote work in some respects.
As firms make plans to return to the office in the coming months, many are looking to adopt remote work 20% to 50% of the time. Some smaller firms are going as far as ditching traditional offices for good. A hybrid work model, which allows for both in-office and remote work, is taking root in law firms across the country.
Transitioning to a thriving hybrid work environment for the long run, however, will require some changes in the way law offices run and operate. Here are some basics to consider.
Technology Infrastructure and Security
With so much of the work between colleagues and clients shifting online comes a need for a robust cloud-based infrastructure that can support all staff doing remote work. Hand in hand with that is a need for heightened cybersecurity. There are also IT disruptions to consider, such as slow Wi-Fi and lack of proper videoconferencing equipment.
Many law firms are using apps that provide easy and convenient access to files in the cloud and security systems with real-time threat detection and full-audit trail capabilities to address these issues.
Secure remote access to case information stored in a well-organized electronic space will not only increase productivity but help the firm meet data privacy regulations as well.
Related: “5 Common Tech Challenges in the New Remote Work Normal” plus “Client Portals: A Must-Have for Today’s Law Firms”
Communications and Collaborations
Communication is often one of the biggest challenges for a law firm. A key concern is that people working from home are at risk of missing out on important information, along with relationship-building opportunities that come from sharing a physical office space with co-workers.
Every organization has a different approach in bridging the communication gap. But establishing systems and schedules for firmwide communication seems to work best for workplaces in hybrid operations. Many hybrid offices have regular videoconference schedules and employ a 100% video on policy for team meetings.
Also, investing in high-quality webcams and headsets allows better collaboration among employees and boosts morale, regardless of location.
Related: “Remote Work Lessons to Take Forward From the Shutdown” plus “The Flat Firm: Why Collaboration Over Hierarchy Makes Sense”
Training and Mentoring
Mentorship will be more challenging for law firms looking to implement a partly in-office and partly out-of-office model, which could be disadvantageous to trainees. With almost 50% of the staff not physically present, firm leaders are worried about the ability to train interns and associates in a remote setting, where it’s more difficult to identify expertise and observe senior lawyers in action.
To ensure that trainees don’t get left behind, law firms will again need to turn to technology — specifically, tools that make knowledge readily accessible despite a partially remote setup. In this respect, knowledge management systems for both legal work product and firm operations will increase in value, providing access to the overall expertise within the organization.
Also, recording certain meetings, discussions and negotiations and making them available to associates and interns can be an effective training strategy. Such recordings will allow them to witness how deals are made firsthand.
Of course, law firm business professionals and staff require onboarding and training, too. Managers may need help building the requisite skills to deal with the challenges of overseeing hybrid workers.
Related: “10 Tips to Help First-Year Associates Cope While Working From Home”
Having all employees in a bricks-and-mortar environment creates a designated start and end to their workday, but this line blurs when the workforce is split into in-office and remote staff.
A successful hybrid work environment demands accountability from every player while also fostering a culture that respects employees’ personal time. You can accomplish this by creating clear expectations for communication within and beyond regular work hours and establishing quantifiable productivity metrics for groups working inside and outside the building.
Employees must be required to meet specific standards and responsibilities to be successful, regardless of whether they are working in the office or not.
Related: “Leading Remote Teams: Tips for Improving Effectiveness”
Is Hybrid Work the Future for Law Firms?
Switching to a hybrid or fully remote setup has several advantages for law firms and their employees. For one, it eliminates the need for a chunk of office space — one of the biggest expenses for firms. Another advantage comes in wooing talent, which increasingly demands flexible remote work options.
Still, firm leaders can’t help being concerned about the long-term impacts of remote work on firm culture, mentorship and training, and turnover. Attorneys are also working longer — and weirder — hours, as lines between home and work have blurred, making them more susceptible to burnout.
But as the nature of lawyers’ work continues to evolve and clients come to appreciate the benefits of virtual legal services, remote work is likely to stick around.
821 Illustration ©iStockPhoto.com
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