Hybrid working: Have law firms found the secret sauce?

July 25, 2022

Throughout the constant disruption of the pandemic, law firms improvised, adapted, and evolved, raking in record profits in the process. Three years down the line, with hybrid working graduating from workplace trend to staple, can we say that law firms have finally perfected the formula for working differently? Have they cooked up the secret sauce?

This was the central theme of Sandpiper Partners’ recent “Working Differently” virtual conference. Williams Lea’s CEO Clare Hart joined a stellar panel of law firm leaders and heads of client legal operations to share perspectives on how the world of work has progressed and how firms are responding to the ongoing impact of hybrid work.

Here are the top takeaways from the event:

Hybrid work requires more than workplace flexibility

Law firms should stop looking at hybrid work as just a “workplace model” that gives employees the flexibility to choose where they work, usually a combination of remote and in-office.

While hybrid work is largely about agility, it also requires engagement, communication, and intentionality.

“It’s important to listen to all groups working with our clients, including the support staff, because they affect office morale and culture as much as attorneys,” said one panelist.

It’s just as important to communicate, especially for junior associates who need more touchpoints, because when you’re hybrid or remote, “you have to reach all layers of the team,” another panelist pointed out. “You can mentor and coach using technology but be mindful that you’re reaching all parts of the organization.”

However, as we inch closer to “normal,” law firms grapple with the challenges of the in-office/onsite part of hybrid work. Most reported that employees were more productive working from home, with benefits ranging from getting more sleep, spending time with family, and having a good work/life balance. “These are things that make people well, therefore making them more productive,” said one panelist. “If you want them to give that up to go back to the office, they need it to be for a really good reason.”

That’s where intentionality plays a part.

The traditional workplace thrived on routine: People went to work, sat in front of their computers, then went home. A hybrid workplace requires intentionality where employees’ days spent in-office are tailored to precise and purposeful goals. “This underscores the need for really crisp roles and responsibilities,” said one panelist. “There should be proactive administrative operations and reiterate exactly who is doing what.”

“The question shouldn’t be ‘Are you or are you not in the office?’, said one panelist. “Instead, it should be ‘Why are you in the office?’ Intentionality is about making it meaningful.”

The office as a destination

“If attorneys and staff aren’t going to the offices, you’re going to have underutilized space,” a panelist said.

To solve for underutilized space, law firms are rethinking their approach to weave in flexibility and efficiency, as well as character, into their real estate portfolios. “It has to be attractive,” said one panelist. Another panelist agreed, “We want them to come to the office, so the office has to be better than their home office.”

For law firms with big Return to Office (RTO) plans, the office must be a destination for the workforce.

Williams Lea’s CEO Clare Hart believes that the hybrid working intentionality extends to the physical space. “For the office to be a destination, it has to have meaningful purpose,” she said. “For our team members working in hybrid mode in our delivery centers, we follow the 4Cs – Collaboration, Communication, Celebration and Community; I’ll add in a fifth C and that’s Culture. Williams Lea has a strong culture. We invest a lot in training and professional development; some are virtual, some are in-person. These Cs – that’s our purpose, that’s why we come in.”

There is a growing appetite to experiment and rightsize real estate. One panelist said, “It’s very much evolving, and it’s reflective of the location and practice areas involved.”

Some law firms see this as an opportunity to push for more office amenities, such as rooftop space, fitness centers, and central cafeterias, while others are testing dynamic workplace combinations that enable collaboration and activity-based working. A panelist from a commercial real estate firm said setups, such as hoteling for practice groups, are “a matter of analysis for work styles.” They also advised, “Pick your position, do pilot cases, and understand conclusions.”

Whatever the real estate plan you employ, “it has to be strategically important,” a law firm panelist stressed. “Your office shouldn’t be there as a convenience, but as a strategic priority, such as growth or client engagement.”

Firms need a holistic approach to talent acquisition and retention

One of the unintended effects of hybrid and remote working was “how we all became involved in each other’s lives, bringing our values to the organization,” said one panel member.

Law firm clients are becoming more conscious about criteria for partnering with select law firms, with most, if not all, asking for ESG or DE&I initiatives in RFPs. The same is happening in the talent market. While work flexibility is still a desirable benefit, candidates are expecting more. “It’s now more holistic,” said one HR Director from a top law firm. “They [lawyers and staff] expect firms to look after their mental health. They also look at the type of work the firm is doing for the community.”

Retaining talent in the hybrid workplace has posed operational and collaborative challenges. However,  several panelists pointed out that while in-person interactions have plummeted in the last three years, virtual collaboration has not only increased, it has also proven to be just as effective. “There has been a lot of interactions and a lot of feedback, setting up matters that allow for ways for individuals to deliver remotely,” a panelist shared. “People are using technology in incredibly creative ways, and we found that our junior people are more connected to our firm’s culture.”

Firm leaders need to examine, understand, and lean into these virtual tactics, and see how they can tie in with in-person components. One global law firm recently launched a hybrid mentorship program called “Three Conversations,” which entitled their junior associates three in-person discussions, each revolving around a specific topic, with their senior partner. According to the law firm panelist, the program “has so far been well received!”

Hybrid work is no longer just a blurry concept. Most firms have rolled out their own version of a hybrid workplace. Is it the right setup for law firms? One panelist answered honestly, “I don’t know how to solve it for you. You’re just going to have to think about your own hybrid situation.”

What’s important is to continue to listen to clients and firm employees and, as always, be nimble. As one panelist quipped, “If the pandemic taught us anything – whether there’s a recession coming or another new variant – it’s that we need to be able to pivot quickly.”

Download our latest future of work brief to learn more about managing productivity and engagement in hybrid workforce.

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