Remote working: The rise of the virtual office

April 07, 2020

Joseph McSpadden, SVP at Williams Lea, shares what law firms can learn from younger generations about remote working and staying digitally connected.

As the world grapples with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, law firm leaders and lawyers are keeping operations going and cash flow moving from the confines of their home offices. The ABA recently reported that 95% of firms have implemented a pandemic-related remote work policy. In an industry big on face-to-face interaction and notoriously long office hours, how are firms meeting the challenge?

In this “new normal,” law firms are now forced into what they have resisted for so many years: An agile, more flexible way of working that relies heavily on technology and virtual collaboration, something that Millennials and Gen Z have long advocated for.

The digital worker

Millennials, and to a certain extent, Gen Zs, are the poster children for remote working. To their older colleagues, they are stereotypically pictured holed up in a local Starbucks, typing away on their laptops, only pausing to take a sip of coffee.

In addition to knowing a good soy macchiato, digital workers have several attributes that enable them to capitalize on the circumstances created by this crisis.

They are tech-savvy

Digital workers know technology and are not afraid to capitalize on it to increase their efficiency. With laptops, mobile phones, video conferencing, instant messaging, and Wi-Fi, their virtual offices are where they happen to be.

They’re strong advocates of agile working

Agile or remote working doesn’t mean “less work.” For digital workers, it simply means having more flexibility in the timing and location of work. They work hard, but don’t want to put in more face time than is necessary, because they value different things, which takes me to my next point.

They have changing expectations of work and family

In Deloitte’s 2019 Millennial Survey, flexible working practices and support for a healthy work/life balance were among the top things Millennials looked for when evaluating an employer. They value strong work/life balance over career progression and higher pay. For them, having control over how and when they work is more important.

Digital workers, with their tech savviness and experience with remote working, have adapted quickly to the new normal.

Following the grain, not going against it

For a long time, law firms have fought against remote and digitally enabled working. In our 2019-2020 Trends and Opportunities in Law Firm Outsourcing Survey, law firms reported the impact of remote working (32%) and supporting digitally enabled workers (26%) as key challenges. That, along with partners’ resistance to change (59%), makes agile working harder to incorporate into a law firm setting.

There are, however, numerous benefits to law firms in adding flexible working practices like remote working: Increased productivity, lower overhead costs, and technology enablement, to name a few. Technology enablement is particularly important, because it drives innovation. Additionally, technology-enabled firms are better prepared for business continuity when an unexpected event like a pandemic hits.

Law firms are steeped in the traditional ways of working, with fee earners and admin staff onsite. But this isn’t the future of the workplace: By 2028, 73% of teams are expected to have remote workers. Though we can’t expect law firms to go fully virtual, they would benefit from a hybrid structure that combines virtual and onsite workers, with fee earners receiving the same comprehensive assistance from their secretarial or admin support staff, regardless of whether those staff members are onsite or virtual.

My colleague, Phil Muller, wrote a piece about the success a law firm client had testing the virtual captive support model. It resulted in more motivation and productivity, particularly among the younger associates in the firm. With 24/7 virtual support, fee earners had more time to do what they needed to do: Core legal work.

With a technology-enabled workplace that uses tools for project management, VoIP, instant messaging, and video conferencing, virtual support services staff can schedule meetings, do time entry, and process T&E expenses just as easily as if they were right outside a lawyer’s office.

I remain optimistic that the world will overcome the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, but I also can’t deny that our post-pandemic normal will see long-lasting changes. One of those changes will be the way we work. We’ve seen that remote working, aided by virtual support services, is possible in the law firm setting. Perhaps it’s time to accelerate this new trend.

To find out more about how Williams Lea can help law firms navigate this new, post-pandemic normal with high-touch virtual support services, visit the Services page.

How we help

  • Connect virtual and onsite teams

    Enabling a hybrid workforce through rightshore support models

  • Access global support capabilities

    Providing 24/7, follow-the-sun support that delivers consistent, uninterrupted service

  • Improve secretary-to-attorney ratios

    Optimizing staff structure through centralized secretarial support

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