Reimagining the law firm as the world reopens

June 25, 2020

In an ideal world, a gradual return to the office during a pandemic would simply involve office disinfection and social distancing protocols for onsite workers. However, the real world isn’t straightforward: Scenario planning, new efficiencies, and business support are just a few of the things firms need to take into account as shutdowns ease and offices start to open up.

These considerations were the central theme of the recent Sandpiper Partners’ “Integrating Remote Work with Phased Return to Work” roundtable, sponsored by Williams Lea. Our CEO, Clare Hart joined a panel of law firm leaders to reimagine a new normal for law firms. Here are the takeaways from the event:

In a dynamic environment, focus on the future

Law firms have found a way to maintain business continuity, thanks to remote working. Lawyers and staff never stopped working, as indicated by the results of our instant survey. In a way, the COVID-19 crisis created the opportunity to separate the concept of being physically present in an office with the concept of being at work.

As one panelist put it, “You’re at work wherever you are. The phrase return to work would suggest we weren’t working, when we were, just in a remote setting, so we call it return to the office.”

Law firms’ return-to-office strategies consider the unpredictable conditions we still face. We are in an extremely dynamic environment, where COVID-19 cases are rising in some areas and declining in others. “It’s not a linear progression,” a panelist said. “We can take the first step then go back another step.”

This volatility has driven firm leaders to build on the “future” aspect of their return-to-office strategies, creating task forces to strategically plan for different operational scenarios. One law firm shared that they have two task forces: The first one dealing solely with employees’ return to the office. The second one, focusing on reimagining the workplace and the long-term implications and policies that affect remote working, support resources, in-person and virtual collaboration, and technology.

Bigger appetite for virtualization and outsourcing

“What you need locally and what you can use remotely are totally different,” one panelist said. This is especially true in support services. Remote working has proven that secretaries and administrative assistants don’t have to be in the same place as those they are supporting.

This paradigm shift has led to greater acceptance of the virtualization of support functions, reinforced by our instant survey, where 58% of firms reported that they were considering virtualizing secretarial support.

The cost pressures of the crisis have law firms seriously reviewing outsourcing as well, with admin support, digital mailrooms, and document processing at the top of the list. “The concern is: Is outsourcing going to be good or better?” one panelist said. “More likely it will be better. Outsourcers are building centers of excellence using top-notch on tools and technologies for support services.”

This sentiment is shared by the respondents of our instant survey with 60% reporting that they planned on outsourcing some functions in the next six months.

Outsourcing also offers the benefit of scaled capacity. On their own, firms can’t scale without adding headcount. They would also need to spend a significant amount of time training and managing in-house resources.

Analysis and analytics: Examining the past, predicting the future

In such volatile conditions, people want something they can control. This is where analysis and analytics come in. Analyzing historical data and utilizing it to model future scenarios provide opportunities for law firms when planning for a post-pandemic setting.

“Start analyzing the roles that you have, particularly on the admin side,” one panelist said. “What can be outsourced? What else can we outsource that we aren’t already? Look at outsourcing anew, because capabilities have developed.”

More clients are also asking for metrics and analytics. They now recognize the importance of data and how they can be used to streamline processes, increase operational efficiencies, and make more informed business decisions.

“Clients want dashboards,” another panelist said. “They’re asking: How do I know what people are doing when they’re working from home? What are the utilization rates in what offices and practices? This data provides value to clients.”

Never let a good crisis go to waste

While the COVID-19 crisis has caused unprecedented damage, there are lessons to be learned and positive outcomes for the taking. As one panelist put it succinctly, “Don’t waste a crisis.”

Law firm leaders are now more open to new ways of working. While there are instances where work is completed faster in an office environment, disruption presents a huge opportunity to review how you can best utilize technology, resources, and real estate.

Whether it’s through virtualization, outsourcing, or another service altogether, firm leaders should start getting creative when thinking about the future, especially when it comes to supporting their lawyers and, most importantly, their clients.

For more insights, download our instant survey results, The Impact of the COVID-19 Crisis on Law Firm Support Operations.

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