As Omicron halts the return to the office, law firm leaders seek new opportunities for change

December 17, 2021

The Sandpiper Partners Working Differently London, 2022 virtual roundtable, couldn’t have come at a more interesting time. As concerns over the fast-spreading COVID-19 Omicron variant prompted the UK government to advise people to return to working from home, UK law firm leaders are reassessing employee in-office/at home working arrangements. At the same time, planning and budgeting to meet the challenges of 2022 has commenced with a strong focus on: Strengthening client relationships, dealing with the challenge of attracting and retaining talent, and driving and maintaining a strong culture throughout a workforce that looks like it will remain dispersed for some time.

Williams Lea’s CEO, Clare Hart, joined a panel of top UK law firm leaders to deliberate the evolution of the legal workplace. Here are the top takeaways from the event:

Flexibility and communication are key to driving stronger culture and well being

As uncertainty over the return to office continues, law firm leaders agreed that hybrid working is not a straightforward solution and discussed several fundamental principles, such as autonomy and flexibility that are helping their lawyers and support staff navigate through a constantly changing landscape. Making the effort with regular staff surveys and spending time with different groups across the firm to gain feedback on issues such as hybrid working arrangements and mental health proved to be of significant value.

One of the panelists found that for his firm, allowing for flexibility has worked really well: “We’ve told our people that clients come first so you work wherever you need to be providing you’re connected to your clients. Then your colleagues come second for collaboration, development, or work allocation. After having satisfied those two guiding principles, they can have the autonomy and the flexibility to do what suits them best. That’s something we set up and it was extremely well received.”

Another panelist agreed on flexibility but emphasized that leaders cannot set up a one size fits all policy, especially when it comes to global businesses, “When you’re dealing with a business that covers European, Middle East, Asian offices as well as in the UK, that is just not possible. So instead, we’ve very much framed our approach around the principles of flexibility, trust and embracing the fact that we’re in a trial and learning process and it’s important that we reflect on what works and what doesn’t.”

Leadership and technology can combine to maximize team effectiveness

One leader from an international law firm stated that most legal work is still allocated by partners and sometimes that’s a disorganized process, which may be exacerbated by hybrid working. Therefore, strong leadership skills are crucial for effective communication with relevant legal and support teams. ”In a number of our offices and practice areas we’ve piloted a formal work allocation program” said the panelist, “whereby we have a work allocation manager, who is supported by technology that can identify the work required so it can quickly be allocated across practice areas. Associates can also share how busy they are on a regular basis.”

Williams Lea’s CEO, Clare Hart, pointed out the importance of using such technology to drive effective work allocation and therefore greater speed and accuracy of service, “ENGAGE, our digital client platform, helps law firms manage their business support workflows and provides meaningful reporting on the metrics associated with the business support activities that we provide. ENGAGE’s metrics allow the firm to see employee utilization rates, where the work requests are coming from, who is making requests, the time of day the requests are coming in, turnaround time, and quality metrics. We’ve had a few firms actually want to use ENGAGE for their own employees to manage their utilization and bring greater connectivity among their own staff as well as ours.”

Measuring productivity should go beyond just the billable hour

Even though many law firms claim to have data to suggest that remote working increases productivity and the billable hour tends to be the proxy for measuring productivity in law firms, it doesn’t tell firm leaders anything about efficiency or effectiveness during those hours worked. As one managing partner said, “We really do need to look very carefully at how we measure things and we should measure outputs and not inputs. We do not have any billable hour targets, which some people find unusual, but it relieves some amount of pressure.”

Law firms need to be more intelligent in the way they use data to accurately identify productivity levels, speed, and quality of work, thus unlocking greater insight into measuring true productivity across their workforce. Proper data management through tools like ENGAGE can identify teams who are overworked and those that are underutilized. With this knowledge, firms can scale resources accordingly or even upskill existing staff, so they have greater ability to support other teams. As the panelists pointed out during the discussions, more of their firms are turning to workflow technology that helps enhance visibility to drive informed decisions in those areas.

Law firm leaders still yearn for a return to the office to build culture and nurture talent

Law firms have enjoyed record profits, but it’s come at a price. “Financially, it’s been off the charts”, said one of the panelists, “but it’s come at a price to our people and the culture of our firm. We will have to work incredibly hard to ensure that we have a sustainable business and when we do get back into our offices, not revert back to how things were in the past.” Another panelist, a managing partner of a leading law firm added, “I’ll be honest with you, I would sacrifice quite a chunk of that profit increase to get back what I see we are losing and it is that culture link that we are losing.”

Even though working from home has offered greater flexibility and the realization that attorneys could be just as effective working remotely, the office still plays a critical role when it comes to creativity, collaboration and culture. Firm leaders on the panel agreed that they need to think hard about redesigning the office to encourage people to come in without mandating it. Harnessing workplace technology to encourage hybrid meetings, avoid proximity bias and utilizing apps, such as those that can tell employees when their colleagues are at home or in the office can further boost engagement. The office can also serve its purpose through team days, strategy sessions and workshops that help forge a greater working community.

To understand the factors driving law firm strategy for the next 12 months, download the eighth annual Trends & Opportunities in Law Firm Outsourcing Survey.

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