The legal industry in flux: Exploring and shaping new possibilities
“We’ve announced 400 return-to-office dates and none of them seem to be relevant, so we just keep kicking the can down the road,” said one law firm COO. “We will have a hybrid model going forward, but that’s subject to change.”
The benefits of being flexible to change, as well as the risks of failing to change, were the overarching theme of the recent Sandpiper Partners’ “Working Differently 3.0” East Coast roundtable. The panelists, including Williams Lea’s CEO Clare Hart, discussed hybrid workforce management, talent acquisition and retention, real estate plans, and outsourcing strategies. Instant polls of the 150 attendees also provided a “pulse check” on critical workplace policies across the legal sector.
Here are the key takeaways from the event:
Hybrid working: The next great experiment
The pandemic taught us some hard lessons about how to keep entire firms running while the whole world was on lockdown. However, will those learnings be enough to address a more complicated hybrid working model?
“Remote working was easier, because it was a level playing field and now things are beginning to change,” one panelist said. “We have a significant portion of people going back to the office and others who are working remotely. How do we ensure we have a successful transition?”
Hybrid working comes with significantly more challenges, and firms realize the importance of having guardrails around this new workplace model, with 94% of the audience reporting that they have already issued new hybrid working policies or are working on it. Among these challenges include determining which roles can continue to work remotely and which jobs are tied to physical facilities. There is also the delicate topic of compensation: If someone who was previously based in San Francisco moves to Montana, should they continue to be paid a San Francisco salary? (To which a panelist answered, “For something like this, it’s really going to depend on the role, so it should be taken on a need-by-need basis.”)
Another pressing challenge revolves around equity and fairness. How can we avoid a system where in-office personnel are valued and awarded differently from remote workers?
Technology can help create digital equality and ensure that remote workers are as seen, heard and able to interact as those who are in physical offices. However, technology can only go so far. It needs to be supplemented with good, intentional leadership and management practices.
One panelist described how she manages her hybrid team and how a weekly meeting can make a world of difference. “Our weekly meeting is like second nature now, and we report on what we’re all working on. It establishes visibility and communication and helps erase the skepticism that comes with ‘someone’s in the office, someone’s not.’ And with the use of technology, we create better continuity.”
Stopping the talent exodus
When asked if they were seeing a higher level of attrition now compared to pre-COVID times, 63% of the audience answered yes. The panel agreed that it’s become a huge problem. One panelist said, “The fact that people are leaving puts enormous stress on the people who are still with the firm and then they think about leaving!”
The hot hiring market, especially for lateral associates, has firms pulling out all the stops to attract top talent, from signing bonuses to vacations to Peloton memberships.
It’s not just material perks, though: There are firms offering hybrid or even permanent remote work arrangement to gain a recruitment edge. “Some firms are offering flexibility,” one panelist said. “That is an important factor. Restrictive firms, they lost talent.”
This talent exodus has caused an upswing in outsourcing, which has given law firms the opportunity to focus their time and energy on their core staff. “When we take on a law firm’s administrative support function, we also handle the recruitment, onboarding, training, and retention of those employees, allowing the firm to concentrate on fee-earning staff,” said Williams Lea CEO Clare Hart. “By letting us handle legal support staff, they can focus on attracting and retaining the best lateral partners and associates.”
The shifting purpose of real estate
Law firms that can, are already releasing real estate to drive down costs. However, not all firms have that flexibility. Those that are locked into leases are already reimagining space configuration as purpose shifts from individual work to collaboration. A balanced workplace, one that has both group and focus spaces, is more conducive to a hybrid workforce.
One panelist’s firm is creatively rethinking their own space: “We don’t have case rooms right now, but we need more of those. It won’t just be a room with case files, it’s also going to be Zoom or Webex-enabled, and you can use the space more collaboratively. I do think this is where we’re going to end up.”
Another law firm is looking into a client-centric spaces, where they can gather, meet, and entertain clients, with the practice floors beyond that. A popular model offers a blend of private and shared offices, where lawyers who come in more frequently get a designated office while those who come in once or twice a week can use “agile offices” on an ad-hoc basis.
The legal industry is in flux and will continue to be, well into 2022, and the panel opined that presents more opportunities for growth, whether it’s expansion or new service areas, but law firms need to be more flexible and open to change, the way they have been with virtual working. One panelist summed it up perfectly, “It’s going to be a learning experience. We’ll see what works and what doesn’t work, and we can expand on the things that do work.”
To learn more about the workplace of the future and how to best navigate it, download our future of work briefs on hybrid working and building your technology arsenal for the hybrid workforce.