Using the crisis to drive change: How should law firms react as offices reopen?

July 24, 2020

Phil Muller, Director of Legal Services at Williams Lea, joined a panel of UK law firm leaders at a special roundtable hosted by Sandpiper Partners. The headline topic was integrating remote working as law firms implement a phased return to the office.

Law firms in the UK are slowly bringing people back to the office at 10-15% capacity while in some cities around the world it’s almost back to business as usual. The question posed to the panel was: How much will the pandemic change the way law firms operate? Our instant survey conducted in May with Sandpiper Partners told us that 43% of respondents believed that the COVID-19 pandemic would affect legal practice forever, while 31% believed that the effects would only last until the end of this year.

Here are six key learnings from the panel:

It doesn’t matter where you are if you’re getting the job done

Law firms are now pivoting towards greater agility and flexibility. One of the panelists said that in an internal staff survey at their firm, only 18% of employees wanted to return to the office on a fulltime basis. Many myths about what could go wrong with remote working have been fractured and firms now recognize that as long as staff productivity and work quality remains high, their location is irrelevant.

Technology, not transport, brings firm teams closer together

International travel and commuting will be less necessary now that fee earners and their teams have forged a stronger bond through online collaboration. Face-to-face conferencing technologies, such as Zoom or MS Teams have replaced the occasional phone call and brought colleagues in global offices even closer. Going forward, recruitment and development strategies will need to include flexible working in order to attract and retain top talent. Firms will need to upskill their collaboration techniques – with clients, international colleagues, and trainees – and technology that will help simplify processes, measure productivity, and improve automation. Those two elements will encourage better service, greater agility, and a more empowered workforce.

Firms need to change how they look after their people

The crisis has shown employee adaptability and resilience. However, it’s highlighted a greater need for law firm investment in employees’ physical and mental wellbeing. Even though productivity has remained high, there is potential stress, mental anxiety and physical strain due to inadequate home working environments. There may be a greater need for firms to support “kitting out” home office spaces to ensure a safe working environment. Additionally, firms will need to find innovative ways to ensure sound mental and physical wellness across the workforce, and to continue to promote diversity, equity and inclusion.

The move towards flexible working will impact real estate needs

As many law firms look to adopt a hybrid model of remote and office working, they will need to reconsider real estate strategies. A panelist pointed out that the ‘Big Four’ consultancy firms have successfully embraced agile work spaces and flexible working models. One of the secrets to their success has been using offices in prime locations for front office staff and creative collaboration spaces, while using third party outsourced services with dedicated expertise to manage support functions such as marketing, secretarial and administration. The pandemic is forcing law firms to follow suit.

Avoid scrapping entire business strategies and starting again

The panelists agreed that law firms must not make a knee-jerk reaction to push out or delay business strategies. One of the panelists stated, “there is a great temptation right now to chuck the baby out with the bath water.” A crisis like this brings a temptation to abandon plans in favor of new strategies, but that may be short-sighted. Especially if there is good work that has already been done to enable agile working, such as breaking down hierarchies, streamlining processes and adopting new technologies, including moving towards cloud based solutions to allow greater flexibility. To drive further efficiency, it’s important to keep, and even accelerate those aspects.

Support staff management must evolve

Law firms are reimagining the “where” and “how” of support services. Previously, secretaries, administrators and staff were expected to always be in the office. Like everyone else, they were forced into virtual working, with a good degree of success. One of the panelists, a chief operating officer at a leading law firm, questioned the need to have a “PA outside your door” when most of their business services staff can work perfectly well from home. This is a unique opportunity for firms to virtualize their back office services and build a platform that provides greater flexibility. Now that firms can see what’s possible, it’s important to keep that momentum.

To find out more, about how law firms are integrating remote working  download our instant survey results, The Impact of the COVID-19 Crisis on Law Firm Support Operations.


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