Law firms are finding new ways to bring their people closer together in a hybrid working world

September 21, 2022

Exploring new ways of working and how law firms are adapting to an ever-changing world was the main topic at Sandpiper Partners’ Working Differently Virtual Roundtable.  A recurring theme was collaboration as panelists discussed fostering relationships between colleagues and clients and building an environment within a law firm, and with law firm clients, that encourages working more closely together.

Clare Hart, CEO of Williams Lea, joined a panel of UK law firm leaders and their general counsel clients to discuss and exchange ideas on technology, processes and tried and tested methods that are helping law firms and their clients achieve their goals. Here are the top four takeaways from the event:

Combining hybrid work and preserving culture requires strength in adaptability

The world has gone through monumental changes in the last three years. Inflation, a looming recession and the energy crisis have furthered the trials and tribulations of getting fee earners and staff to return to the office. Panelists agreed that due to these external factors, hybrid working is here to stay.

However, building a flexible working strategy is vital to building strong culture, and maintaining staff’s mental health. Said one law firm leader: “What’s going to be really key for all of us is the ability to flex and pivot and to be adaptable, so that we can deal with change. We’ve got to recognize that we’ve been through a very sustained period of significant change and that will take its toll on our people. We need to think about what that means in terms of firm culture, the psychological safety of our people, their ability to react to that change and how we preserve our culture going forward. We’ve got to find a way to make hybrid working work in a way that is cognizant of our people and their needs and expectations and the business of the firm and serving clients.”

The panelists agreed that a fully remote working policy is not an ideal environment for lawyers to work in but treading the fine line between asking and demanding fee earners and staff return to the office is necessary to avoid losing top talent. “For our lawyers, we are very keen to try to increase the amount of time that people are spending in the office” said a leader at a UK based multinational law firm. “But we equally recognize that we don’t want to set a hard line to that because our culture has changed and our people are now so used to working remotely. We’re treading quite carefully with it, but actually our goal is to slowly increase the amount of time that our lawyers are spending in the office.” The same panelist agreed that new hires needed to be handled differently, particularly as it’s harder for a new joiner to collaborate with colleagues when working remotely. “We have started a few initiatives whereby our expectation is, at least for the first few months of somebody’s role, that they’re in three to four days a week. Then we’re actually saying after that, once you’ve met the teams and you feel you have a better knowledge of the firm then we’re much happier for them to take a more flexible approach.”

Clients want closer collaboration with their law firms in fast changing times

Key representatives from law firm clients gave their perspective on how the current environment is shaping their priorities and expectations from their outside counsel. DE&I and ESG values remain a crucial factor for law firms to demonstrate to their client. However, working more closely with clients to effectively become an extension of their legal department is a key requirement.  “The more time you spend with your client, the more you end up acting, ideally, as an extension of their problem-solving engine. For the most part, in house teams tend to be run quite lean, and we will leverage external law firms. To do that, we want the ability to have a law firm that absolutely gets you.” said a panelist representing a leading global investment bank.

With the fast-changing environment, manifested by COVID-19, Brexit, the war in the Ukraine and economic uncertainty, law firms with the ability to predict future challenges for their clients could gain a significant competitive edge.  As a panelist representing a top global pharmaceuticals company highlighted, “One area where law firms have been lacking, but are getting better at, is helping a client not just to address the issues of today, but based on their industry knowledge, helping their clients be aware of the issues of tomorrow, and how we can proactively address those issues, rather than waiting for something to happen and act in a reactive manner. I would say that is the thing that clients expect long term to reflect their values.”

Technology and data analytics should focus on making lawyers and support staff thrive

Using technology, data and analytics in decision making to improve efficiency and productivity was also discussed, as panelists deliberated on how to help lawyers and their support staff do their best work. During the discussion, Clare Hart, Williams Lea’s CEO, made clear that when it comes to managing resources effectively, you need data around how much and where resources are focused, “It’s important to understand the utilization rate when managing staff, so that you can increase or reduce staff that is supporting important activities such as entering invoice data or submitting e-bills. Data such as turnaround time, accuracy and end-user feedback should be measured as well. ENGAGE, our SaaS-based workflow platform, captures what our staff is doing for the law firms we work with. Our clients are embracing ENGAGE because they can then get a full view of what’s going on in terms of the investment they’re making in the services we provide.”

Panelists agreed that using analytics to help their teams thrive should be an important focal point for law firms. A managing partner of a global law firm highlighted a new approach in understanding performance, “We have created a scorecard, which is updated on a regular basis that focuses on three blocks: people, performance and pioneering.  Analyzing broader data about people and also what we’re doing from an environmental perspective and DE&I are the big things that we’re going to start really focusing on and measuring.” However, to succeed in this area, a culture of trust is required, particularly when it comes to DE&I, as a panelist from another UK law firm emphasized, “We wanted to link data back to our individuals’ HR records, and to do that we had to build trust with our employees that that we’re going to use that data fairly and effectively. Fortunately, we’ve built a good culture of trust across our firm with almost 80% of our people agreeing to take part. This has enabled us to spot trends and potential red flags with things like managing resources and wellbeing.”

Repurposing real estate to build community and successfully bring staff back to the office

Shifting gears on real estate and repurposing office space was a big talking point at the roundtable. Although law firms have taken different approaches, the common driver of their success is creating an office that encourages stronger bonds, community and collaboration. Doing that requires innovative design work and the right technology enablement.

A partner at a highly regarded UK law firm shared his experience on creating a space designed for hybrid working, “We budgeted for 65% maximum daily occupancy with traditional desks with two screens. That’s been more than enough for us. We have created neighborhoods, which overlap. The whole idea is that the teams should be able to work and move around and sit at different desks. We encourage that. We also wanted our business services to mix with the lawyer teams and that’s been very successful. Along with client space, a café and access to an outside terrace, we’ve created a more vibrant atmosphere.”

Another panelist agreed that the idea that lawyers need individual offices is not as popular anymore, “We have some individual offices, but they’re not allocated, and they’ve been the least popular. Everybody likes being out on the floor or sitting in their communities with everybody else. There’s been a really big change to the staff behavior since we’ve created our hybrid floor.”

However, another panelist and UK law firm leader added that some privacy with the right technology is still needed in new office configurations, “We’re all working in a way now where there’s a lot more amplified sound. Offices that were designed pre-pandemic didn’t provide for them. In the new model, we’re finding that technology is key. There’s a new etiquette on open plan activity-based working where you still need to go to one of the individual offices or a team space to take a call. We need to make sure we have enough of those private spaces, because we’re finding they’re hugely popular. We’re investing significantly in AV technology to facilitate that, which will continue.”

To learn more about the best ways to repurpose office space and activities to make in-office experiences more compelling, read our latest future of work brief, Mandate or magnetize: Finding the right approach to return to office policies and practices.

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