Paul Smith, senior risk management consultant at Travelers Europe, explores how law firms can preserve the positive outcomes of the pandemic and minimise the negatives, and offers some practical tips.

It’s a given that coronavirus (COVID-19) has posed significant health and economic challenges around the world, along with upending how millions of people work each day. But for those of us who have stayed well and been continuously employed throughout the pandemic, the weeks of lockdown and remote working may have also triggered a surprising realisation: some things haven’t been so bad.

Be it the more flexible working hours, increased productivity, relaxed dress code or the non-existent commute, the pandemic has generated some benefits. Law firms, too, have noted sustained levels of productivity from employees working from home (WFH).

Sustaining early benefits by managing risks

In the first months of the pandemic, several large tech firms and law firms – seeing some early advantages of remote work – committed to having employees WFH permanently.

Research has since reinforced those preferences more broadly. In September, the Institute of Directors surveyed nearly 1,000 company directors in the UK about their experience with remote work during the pandemic. More than 40% of respondents said having employees WFH was turning out to be more successful than having them come to the office. While it’s hard to say if these effects will continue, companies are up for testing the idea – 74% said they planned to have staff continue to WFH and more than half said their organisation would reduce their long-term use of office buildings.

However, the new way of working isn’t without risks – and some of them have yet to manifest themselves. Outside of the firm, a decline in face-to-face interactions can make it difficult for firms to form solid relationships with new clients and maintain existing ones. Further, those clients may demand more from their lawyers – for example, alternative fee arrangements in place of the existing billable-hours model, or some additional perceived value to complement the increase in technology-supported legal work.

Internally, the newly blurred boundaries between work and home life could lead to a new form of presenteeism in law firms in which employees feel the need to be available at all hours – and burn out more quickly as a result. The challenges of remote supervision aside, having a permanently dispersed workforce can also make it difficult for a firm to maintain its culture and pass it down through new hires. Further, many of the former quality-of-life perks of working in a law firm have become obsolete and require reinvention if firms want to be perceived as good employers in this new environment.

Still, firms have shown an ability to adjust to the times – and that may continue.

Striking the right balance

Law firm leaders need to step into the shoes of both their clients and employees to fully appreciate their needs and understand how they can meet those needs in the current environment and consequently lay the foundation for future success. The recent McKinsey report COVID-19: Implications for law firms advises law firm leaders to consider several areas that can help sustain and build value for clients and employees alike.

  • Be there for clients in ways you haven’t before. Send proactive, personalised emails, listen carefully to their concerns and invest in knowledge and services that build trust. (At the same time, set clear boundaries with them – just because you are WFH doesn’t mean you are always working when you are at home.)
  • Implement new tools and channels to get relevant data and advice to clients quickly. Cut through their information clutter and deliver something valuable.
  • Lead employees with empathy. Be flexible, implement technology that will help you connect and communicate with them regularly, and ensure they know how meaningful their individual contributions are to the firm.
  • Think creatively and strategically about pricing. Instead of locking in long-term, discounted agreements, look to offer more strategic investment, flexible payment terms, credits toward future services and other options clients value.
  • Set up a nerve centre to manage all these activities on an ongoing basis. Develop new ways to keep people informed, track initiatives and reprioritise tasks as needed.
  • Build resilience now while keeping the long view in mind. Sharpen your view of the sectors, clients and practice areas that can help carry your firm through the economic crisis.

What the future holds

The coming months may be telling when it comes to surveying the true benefits and risks of operating post-COVID-19. Sharon Glynn, senior development underwriter at Travelers Europe, comments: “Firms will need to find new ways to bring clients and employees together while also offering the remote-working flexibility that will sustain them from a recruitment and financial standpoint. They will also need to be aware of how to best capture the opportunities that will help usher them through a long period of economic uncertainty.”

“Looking ahead, it seems more and more companies will take a blended approach to where they work,” said Roger Barker, director of policy at the Institute of Directors. “In the long run, greater flexibility could benefit both business and worker alike. However, it’s crucial that the legal and economic implications of this change are grappled with from the start.”

This is an adapted excerpt from an article originally published by Travelers Europe.