At a time when the profession has become super flexible, Nicola Jones explains how firms can capitialise as they continued to adapt
Law firms managed the enforced transition to remote working well on the whole. In total, 81 per cent of lawyers and allied professionals reportedly turned to homeworking, with partners and those in specific areas of practice, such as will-writers, more likely to be office-based.
Although it was a tough and troubling transition for some, reduced overheads, combined with the support of the furlough scheme, have contributed to sustained profitability against the odds.
Clearly, a huge effort has been made to sustain client services despite logistical challenges and difficult personal circumstances. The national mood is one of exhaustion, grief and continued uncertainty about the extent and impact of loosening covid-19 restrictions. As the vaccine rollout continues, talking of ‘going back to normal’ is being replaced by observations about what possibilities have emerged over the last year.
It’s widely agreed that at least six years of change have been condensed and delivered in the last 12 months. For example, resistance to flexible and homeworking in the legal sector has historically centred on concerns about productivity, yet 47 per cent of lawyers report being more productive than normal as a result of remote working. The rationale for a culture of presenteeism has been exploded and new ways of working involving greater levels of trust have emerged.
In a recent LinkedIn survey, over 70 per cent of respondents reported wanting to continue to work from home at least some of the time. With financial benefits, sustained productivity and engagement at stake, firms are likely to continue to evolve their working practices to embrace hybrid working practices. From super resistant, the sector has become super flexible in a short space of time.
The challenge now feels a little like being asked to pat your head and circle your stomach after having run a marathon, because there’s no time to let up in order to stay in touch with the pace of change. Indeed, the workplace is going to be dynamic and legal business practice has to be in shape in terms of operational capacity and human skills.
It is unlikely every firm will have the inhouse expertise to meet this challenge. The good news is that there are good, future-facing specialists working in the sector who can make a difference. To make the most of enforced organisation change of this nature, I suggest three things:
- Continue focusing on communication – Use multiple channels to deliver clear, simple messages. During the pandemic, managing partners have used video messages, email, project and communication platforms keep colleagues informed. Communication has a massive impact on the individual, mitigating feelings of isolation and promoting a sense of belonging. It is also an essential building block of a trusting, adaptable, future-facing culture.
- Take time to review your organisational design –Firm structure has physically changed, working practices have changed, old hierarchical models are no longer fit for purpose. All the firm’s talent needs to be accessible and deployed. Traditional ideas of meeting client needs are changing. Now we speak the language of client experience (CX). We have to get ready to engage deeply with client need, not merely ask if everything is ok. Addressing organisational design is not about deploying who you’ve already got; it’s about working out what is needed to deliver on strategy. Once you have that picture you can ‘retro-fit’ on an informed basis.
- Invest in developing the emotional intelligence as a core business skill – Wellbeing forms an important part of working relationships, trust and a positive working culture. The short-term gains of, for example, being able to communicate with colleagues in ways which meet them where they are, rather than assuming you have been heard, are immense. In the longer term, this is all about getting in the habit of connecting with people quickly and easily, to work flexibly across functions to meet client need. The holy grail is to be able to collaborate on innovation projects, tapping in to diverse talents and embracing risk.
There is much to be positive about in the emerging story of legal sector development. Continued challenges abound both within and without the firm structure. Now’s the time to sustain momentum and engage deeply with skills and structures which will help to navigate continued change.
Nicola Jones is managing director of Athena Professional athenaprofessional.co.uk