Prior to Covid-19, working from home was relatively rare within the legal profession. Eighteen months on from the beginning of the pandemic, with many lawyers yet to return to the office, it appears that remote working will be a mainstay within the profession for some time to come. But what do lawyers think about this and which new working practices do they want to see implemented on a permanent basis?
Thomson Reuters carried out a survey amongst almost 2,500 top performing lawyers and partners globally, including 445 in the United Kingdom and 571 in the United States, to find out how their working practices had changed because of the pandemic and how they wanted to work going forward. The results were clear: most respondents want to retain some degree of flexibility, with the possibility of working flexible hours and from home, at least some part of the time. In fact, fewer than one in ten wanted to go back to working set hours in the office full-time.
Flexibility in determining working hours
Almost two-thirds (63%) of UK lawyers surveyed in March 2021 said they wanted to work flexible, rather than fixed hours. This is nearly three times the proportion that worked flexible hours prior to the pandemic. In the U.S., 43% of lawyers worked flexible hours pre-Covid, which rose to 61% when asked about their preference for the future.
Higher demand for flexible working hours does not mean that lawyers are shying away from long hours. Indeed, 10-hour working days continue to be the norm for UK lawyers, as in the U.S.. However, it’s apparent lawyers are increasingly determined to work when they want to, fitting in life around work.
Lawyers want to work from home more often, but remote working has had its challenges
The majority of respondents both in the U.S. and UK stated a preference to spend more time working from home, as opposed to the office. In both the UK as well as the U.S., lawyers want to spend an average of 2.1 days working from home, up from just 0.6 (0.7 in the U.S.) days before Covid.
This isn’t to say that hybrid working – splitting time between working from home and in the office – has been an entirely smooth process. Through 2020, lawyers had said they had faced challenges in working collaboratively, in business development and helping junior lawyers develop the skills and experience they need to progress.
Nevertheless, many lawyers have since been finding solutions to these challenges. The common theme from respondents was that being intentional about communication – whether that be with clients or team members. Through regular, focused interactions, project management, relationships and knowledge sharing can be effectively maintained even when people are not always together physcially.
A clearer delineation between work and personal time
Working from home has meant that the boundaries between professional and personal lives has become blurred in some respects. Perhaps for this reason, many lawyers are eager to set parameters around their availability.
In the UK, almost a fifth of respondents said they did not want to be contacted on weekends, much higher than in the U.S. where 8% wanted this restriction. Just under a quarter (23%) of UK respondents said they would like contactable hours to be limited during weekdays, for example, no communication before 7am or after 11pm. This compares to 16% in the U.S.
Despite this, 43% of UK respondents said they believed that there should not be any boundaries set with clients and lawyers should be contactable 24/7 – in the U.S., this number climbs to 61%, with a global average of 49%. Even among those who said there should be parameters put in place, a quarter in the UK (and 28% in the U.S.) said they would not be comfortable discussing these with their clients.
It’s clear from the survey that flexibility is key – long hours, including weekend work, is likely to remain a constant within the legal profession. However, lawyers want to have flexibility to achieve a better work-life balance, whether it’s taking some time out from checking their emails or blocking out periods in which they can’t be contacted.
What can be done to ensure new ways of working work for firms and their clients?
Senior managers who want to attract and retain the best legal talent should be mindful of this paradigm shift in working practices. Rather than adopt blanket policies dictating how much time should be spent working in the office or which hours lawyers should be at their desks, they should empower individuals to make decisions that will enable them to do their best work.
Having conversations with clients on servicing their expectations will give firms a strong indication of what resources are needed to provide high levels of service. This will ultimately help law firms to reconcile keeping their staff and clients happy, leading to better retention of business and personnel.
Lucy Leach is a senior technical research manager at Thomson Reuters