Nicola Laver

Editor, Solicitors Journal

Death of the commute

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Death of the commute

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Richard Beresford and Warren Wooldridge uncover the new normal of agile working

The covid-19 global crisis has forced millions of workers, including many lawyers, to adopt and adapt to new ways of working as their firms, then governments, forced them to forgo the daily commute and work from home instead.

Some have found it easier to cope than others; and there have been stories of IT systems failing and other technological and logistical hiccups as companies and their workforces have struggled to deal with the sudden and significant set of changes required.

For others, it has been very much business as usual, and as a next generation City firm, McCarthy Denning has been one of those.

Since we launched in 2013, the concept of agile working has been at the core of the firm’s model – one of the pillars of empowerment for the lawyers we sought to recruit.

Since the beginning we’ve offered experienced practitioners the opportunity to work where and when they want and with who they want.

That has proved an alluring concept to a growing number of lawyers.

Sometimes, it takes a week or two for new joiners to adjust to a new way of working and interacting with colleagues and clients.

After that, the feedback is almost always along the lines of: “I can’t imagine going back to the old ways – why doesn’t everyone work this way?”

We now have just under 50 partners; the vast majority came from magic circle or big international law firm backgrounds.

We have city office space housing our administrative staff, meeting rooms and hot-desking facilities, but the culture of agile working is the mainstay – our lawyers are based as far afield as Singapore, Bangkok, Boston – even Aberdeen.

There was a positive, proactive, rationale behind designing the firm in this way.

Lawyers are always griping about office dynamics and time wasted on partners’ meetings and mundane administration.

The daily commute was the bane of everyone’s lives and the non-client meetings in often empty boardrooms was part of the daily routine.

All that was left behind in our model, freeing up lawyers’ time for more productive activities – or simply to spend more time with their families or pursuing personal interests and leisure activities.

As a new entrant into a crowded marketplace, there were technical advantages.

Lacking legacy systems, we could deploy the latest, most innovative, cloud-based practice management technologies and document management systems.

The need for an office server and an on-site IT team was negated.

As well as empowering the lawyers, a more secure environment was created and a new way of working was born.

Face-to-face communication in the office was largely replaced by apps such as WhatsApp, FaceTime and Zoom or by meetings held elsewhere, including at clients’ offices.

Video conferencing supplanted most face-to-face meetings with clients, lawyers on the other side and other advisers.

Much of the firm’s work is international, so gathering everyone involved in a transaction in a traditional ‘all-parties’ meeting was often not possible anyway.

And as clients will readily tell you if you ask them, they are more than happy not to have to traipse across town to their lawyers’ offices for a meeting when they can just as easily join a video conference from the comfort of their own building (or, almost invariably in light of the current circumstances, their home).

Traditional firms no doubt worry about productivity and responsiveness when lawyers are working remotely.

But that is a problem which, fortunately, we don’t share as we pay our lawyers for the work they do.

In fact, most of our lawyers report that they can work more efficiently and with more focus when they aren’t surrounded by the distractions of a busy office.

In any case, firms have the advantage over many other businesses of being able to monitor productivity through time-recording.

As the years passed and news of a better work-life balance spread, the number of lawyers working remotely has grown. They found that the perceived leap of faith was more like a well-kept secret.

Clients were satisfied as they received the partner’s undivided attention, and the lawyers realised this was a brave, new world with no turning back.

No-one yet knows the full devastating repercussions of covid-19 but a number of short-term changes to our daily lives have been forced upon us.

Working from home is now the sensible option to help curb the spread and protect our NHS.

It has undoubtedly been a huge shock to the system for many, but it is the correct course of action.

The universal hope is that we can defeat this invisible enemy and quickly return to normal life.

However long it takes to win that battle, agile working may just become the new ‘normal’.

Richard Beresford is chairman and partner and Warren Wooldridge is CEO at McCarthy Denning mccarthydenning.com