The Future of Remote Work for Law Firms by Madaline Zannes
The Future of Remote Work For Law Firms

The “law firm” of the past is no more. Until 2020, the notion of remote work in the law firm was not only a distant and fleeting thought, but also, an impossible and even humorous idea. From there onwards, all expectations of particular characteristics and processes a typical practice should follow were defenestrated. As the legal profession treads a new uncharted path, one opposite to office politics and high expectations of in-person presence, there is no turning back to the ways of prior firm culture. A way that was not conducive to the needs of lawyers on all necessary aspects of wellness and sustainability.

In order to embrace “the new normal”, a term that has been way overused for what should be referred to as “normalcy” from here onwards, it is necessary to consider where we have been in this process, and what we foresee, in the future of remote work for law firms.

Lawyers and firm staff members are currently learning how to utilize technology to get the job done remotely. Through these necessary experiences came new discoveries of how dated and uninspiring processes have caused inefficiencies in practice, and a lag in the legal system as a whole.

In April 2020, at the start of the induced remote legal shift, Loeb Leadership invited 200 managing partners, partners, associates, business services staff, and leaders, many from Am Law 100 and Am Law 200 firms, to participate in a survey.

What resulted in “The Law Firm’s Adaption to Remote Working - The Findings Report” was an optimistic outlook on how law firms were adapting to new work from home rules. The survey indicated that 77% of participants found the shift to remote work highly successful.

The greatest challenges found in the survey results were not related to the process of working remotely, but rather, the struggles described were more in line with pandemic-related health and financial uncertainties, as well as social isolation and communication challenges. General anxiety scored as the highest challenge faced, at 28% of those surveyed. Results included: social isolation at 20%; keeping the team engaged, communication with colleagues, and keeping a regular schedule, all ranked at 18% equally.

As the first few months of remote work progressed, the sentiment of lawyers collectively moved towards acceptance. In August 2020, the Association of Corporate Counsel shared a report detailing a greater positive outlook of lawyers regarding remote work. The survey which focused on in-house counsels, 46.5% of 249 respondents stated that they expected to “keep the changes to their remote working policy going forward”. In addition, 70% of respondents felt extremely convenient with remote work, as well as video conferencing.

The forced experience of working from home has opened the eyes of the industry, so to speak. Use of technology by necessity may have been the only way that legal processes of yesterday could have evolved.

For example, it is nearly impossible to work remotely without the usage of video conference tools such as Zoom, WebEx, and Google Meet. The learning curve has been forgiving - Cat Lawyer, or not - which has eased the traditionally stern environment that law firms can sometimes uphold. Especially as real life scenarios, such as crying babies or curious pets, infiltrate virtual meetings.

Team communication platforms such as Microsoft Teams, Mattermost, and Slack are commonly used as a centralized location for organizations to collaborate and keep up-to-date. As time progresses, watch for further innovation using IOT, bots, and integrated APIs to further enhance remote communications.

The need to recreate the law firm in a virtual setting has also led to numerous startups introducing unique and inventive ways to improve social interaction amongst colleagues. Virtual headquarters such as Gather, Topia, and 360-degree virtual reality workspaces can be utilized to allow staff to move around in a simulated office, or just have a simple hangout.

Law firms looking to navigate seemingly daunting directories of specialized legal tech platforms are finding it easier to access all-in-one platforms and marketplaces such as Reynen Court, a popular centralized app store for legal tech vendors.

At a base level, it helps that internet connectivity, the core facet of successful work from home, is continually improving. Satellite internet service provider Starlink has plans to unlock faster speed capabilities, especially in rural areas, which will bring greater accessibility, and more work opportunities outside larger cities. At the moment, restrictions remain in place by legal regulatory societies, regarding lawyer limitations of practicing remotely from unlicensed jurisdictions. With calls for more leniency on remote work, there will be a prompt for more urgent change in this area.

Allowing for fexibility for lawyers and law firm staff to work within decentralized office environments can also benefit semi-arrangements, where staff may attend a physical office location when necessary, or during a part-week work schedule.

With the diminished need to attend a physical office, lawyers are reconsidering the costs of paying for and maintaining a workspace. Roughly 33% of respondents surveyed by the Association of Corporate Counsel suggested that physical office presence will soon likely be downsized.

This future shift also brings an end to “remote bias”, which traditionally stigmatized remote workers in favour of those who were always physically present. Part of this bias likely stemmed from the fear that employers would not be able to build strong enough relationships with remote staff members. However, the lesson in this process has been that building trust, especially in the remote realm, is more essential now than ever before.

Remote workers need to build self-starting skills in order to continue a high level of productivity. It is important to note that creating set boundaries around work hours and team communication can enhance wellness, and in turn, productivity. It’s ubiquitous for remote workers to find themselves toiling away beyond allocated work schedules. In order to avoid causing burnout, it is important for firm management to train staff accordingly in creating an expectation that work boundaries are set in place.

A healthy life and work balance is crucial for positive mental wellness. For many, the inability to define balance can lead to anxiety and other challenges. By becoming more aware of what basic needs employees require for better personal wellness and mental health, employee benefits can and should be updated to support remote and hybrid workers.

As companies in various industries have shown willingness to integrate remote work into the office culture permanently, it won’t be long before working from home becomes standard for the legal industry, by preference. The industry has shown it can successfully adapt; now it’s time to thrive.

Madaline Zannes

About the Author

Madaline Zannes, JD (Osgoode),

is a lawyer and legal technologist in Toronto, Canada, and founder of ZannesLaw. Greek America’s Forty Under 40, Class of 2018. Contributor on Inman, Thrive, and HuffPost. Advocate for diversity, remote work, wellness, and innovation.