Technological advancement began to exert its grip on the office environment a quarter of a century ago. Computers arrived, mobile phones became the norm and email was introduced, ushering in an era so radically different that it is all but impossible to explain the extent of the change to anyone who did not experience what went before.

The pace of that change has been relentless. Twenty-five years on, most office-based businesses have adapted their working practices and environments to accommodate this technology. Arguably, the legal profession has lagged behind, which is not entirely surprising – change is not something to which it naturally inclines.

Arnold Bennett observed that ‘any change, even a change for the better, is always accompanied by drawbacks and discomforts’. There is no doubt that this is true of the change that is required to alter the manner in which lawyers have traditionally worked. There are features of legal working practice that have allowed those drawbacks and discomforts to hold sway with the bulk of the profession – so far. 

Change, however, is now firmly afoot. More legal firms are allowing themselves to look past the downsides to assess the potential benefits, for clients, partners and staff, of adopting new ways of working – often called agile, smart or collaborative working. These phrases can jar with the legally minded, but we should not be put off. It is tempting to consider solely the monetary benefits, however such financial efficiency as may result (if any) will not, for most, be sufficient to outweigh the perceived downsides without additional advantages.

So what is the objective of these new ways of working? What is required for it to be successful? Finally, what benefits may arise from adopting the same?

The answer to the first of these questions could be expressed as enabling lawyers to work flexibly: adapting their working patterns to maximise their productivity and thereby deliver the best service to each client. In that way they achieve the greatest value to the business while managing their lives in a manner that is consistent with the natural desire to achieve a better work/life balance – which should be a virtuous circle.

The second question is answered by the provision of the right working environment and appropriate technology. The former includes fewer barriers: provision of larger floorplates, open plan and the softening of departmental demarcation. The latter includes increased electronic storage and less paper along with mobile devices coupled with software that facilitates working when and where required.

The third question requires a more expansive answer and is probably best approached from the viewpoint of the various stakeholders.

Clients, naturally, come first. They, too, live and work under pressure and the receipt of legal advice is just part of their daily operations. Delivery of legal advice is changing because clients require this to be so. They are more knowledgeable and demanding than ever before – requiring, not unreasonably, succinct advice to be delivered when, how and where they want it at an appropriate price. Traditional practice has been slow to accommodate all of these requirements. Collaborative working will achieve this in a number of ways. 

The right working environment will enable lawyers to more easily collaborate on tasks relevant to individual clients and projects. Appropriate technology will enable them to work when and where it is most efficient to do so: at home, at the client’s premises, on the move – wherever is best suited to achieving the client’s objectives.

From the point of view of the lawyers, technological advances have resulted in almost constant accessibility. At times this can be a negative, but it can also be a great benefit. Work is no longer so rigidly governed by time and place. Flexibility enables people to work in their optimal manner, whether in or out of the office. The ability to easily move desks allows client- or transaction-specific groups to work closely together for specific periods of time. 

The environment in which they and all of the other staff work becomes more lively and friendly, resulting in better morale, closer co-operation and increased efficiency. The ability to achieve the virtuous circle identified above can be facilitated. Social and family life can be accommodated without diminishing (and, in fact, it can and should enhance) client service. Universal access to the firm’s systems, whenever and wherever, enables work to be completed with clients and other advisers in the optimal manner.

The business is also a beneficiary. To begin with, it benefits because its clients receive the service they require. Furthermore, it is easier to attract and retain the talented people that are essential to success. There are, it has to be said, monetary benefits - efficient use of expensive space - potentially allowing the number of people to exceed the number of desks and accommodating part-time workers efficiently. 

Some of this will seem familiar – after all the profession has been using mobile devices and remote working for some time. Why is agile working to be perceived as a radical change? In a way it is not – it is part of a continuing process. The fact remains, however, that the profession has not embraced the full benefits of available technology and has adhered to working environments and practices that most of its clients would now find unfamiliar in their own businesses and lives.

The direction of travel seems obvious and inexorable. Those that are prepared to embrace it may just find that they have located that elusive goal – a competitive advantage.

Martin Arnoldis managing partner of Wedlake Bell. The firm has recently announced its move from Bedford Row to 71 Queen Victoria Street. Partners and staff will be located on a single open-plan floor. All forms of agile working will be encouraged and what has been a year-long programme to achieve a ‘paper-light’ environment will move into its final stage of implementation.

LMS annual conference taking place in April 2017

The Law Management Section annual conference is one of the leading events for practice management in the legal profession. This flagship event is a varied mix of plenary and breakout sessions giving you the opportunity to discuss common challenges, share experiences and hear practical guidance from peers and expert speakers.

Register early to benefit from the early bird booking discount.