Remote working for law firms is here to stay

Hybrid working model with reduced office footprint is the future for law firms, says Sivan Tumarkin

Sivan Tumarkin

When COVID-19 hit earlier this year and upended our lives, my law firm, like many other firms around the country, scrambled to adapt to the new reality of remote-working. Within weeks our management team executed a remote-working plan that saw our entire 80-plus-person firm able to provide legal services without significant interruption or delay.

We are now several months into this outbreak in Canada and there is no end in sight for a return to normalcy — whatever that will mean in a post-COVID-19 world.

In the past few months I have spent hours researching and reading articles posted from all corners of the globe about the pros and cons of lawyers working remotely. I have also spoken with many people inside and outside my firm to get their views and predictions of how the legal landscape will adapt to this new world.

The general consensus is that whatever “normal” may look like post-COVID-19, it will usher in a new reality that will likely see law firms allowing remote working for lawyers and staff, while reducing sizeable office footprints. I am in favour of that approach for three main reasons: safety, convenience, and a more efficient deployment of resources.

Safety for our employees is paramount, as it should be for every business. I do not see COVID-19 leaving us anytime soon, even when a vaccine is developed — and then, of course, there is the issue of how effective the vaccine will be. It is also possible that we will see other viruses come about that may have similar if not more devastating effects on our health and our economy.

It’s therefore important to create an environment whereby a law firm can continue to operate in a flexible and efficient manner while ensuring that employees are safe. Think about the logistics of coming into the office while this virus, or any similar disease, is rampant, and about what your employees have to do to get to and function in the office: social distancing on public transit, the lineups for elevators or stairs in any building that social distancing may cause, and the PPE and rearrangement of traditional office space to minimize the risk of spreading this contagion.

There are endless considerations that all come back to one central theme: keeping employees safe. Remote working is the answer.

Yet convenience is a double-edged sword. Some people have the necessary space to work remotely at home, while others do not. This is a legitimate concern for many, especially those with children. But consider the following: saving the time spent travelling to and from the office each day and the cost of public transit, lunches and other work-related expenses. Imagine, once restrictions on gatherings are eased, using the free time you have gained to do what matters to you, such as spending more time with family and friends, getting fit or learning a new language, take singing lessons, painting lessons, and more. The sky’s the limit. Physical space issues can be fixed. You may move to a bigger home (someday), or visit the local library to work. Real estate companies such as WeWork, which rent workspace by the hour, may multiply. Flexibility is the key to a more convenient working environment, which will boost the much sought-after work-life balance in the legal industry.

As managing partner of my firm I am well aware of its resources. It is a constant struggle to ensure that money is well spent to improve not only the firm’s operations, but also our employees’ work experience and lives. By reducing the office footprint, firms will have more money to invest in technology to improve remote working capability, security and the wellbeing of its staff through increased pay, added “allowances” for health-oriented out-of-office activities such as the gym, career advancement courses, as well as team-building events such as group dinners, pub nights and movie nights. Put another way, I would rather take the money we are saving on rent, furniture and office supplies and invest it in our employees’ wellbeing directly. Isn’t that preferable?

I am not advocating eliminating the office altogether. I recognize the need for some essential staff to work in the office, such as clerks who receive and process the mail. I also recognize that lawyers and their assistants may need an office to meet clients in. Nor am I oblivious to the work-life culture that develops when everyone is at the office, and I understand the importance of mentoring younger associates and inexperienced staff. But all of these considerations must be weighed against those of safety, convenience, and how to best utilize a firm’s resources.

That is why I believe that a hybrid model of remote and office working, with a much-reduced office footprint, is the ideal compromise and, frankly, the future work model for law firms. I am aware that some of my colleagues will scoff at this idea and refuse to even entertain a permanent remote work model, but with the advent of more sophisticated and secure technology, coupled with the lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic, law firms must evolve and adapt, or risk being left behind.

The future is here.

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