Crises have a way of exposing our deepest vulnerabilities. Without the need to commute or the ability to interact with others in-person, we have more time to think, but also little time to waste amid sentiment, worry, and concern. It’s difficult to avoid becoming introspective when spending so much time in one place, especially in uncertain times like these. Many of us have begun to ask ourselves what is and is not essential—in both our personal and professional lives.
As of the time of this writing, more than 2.8 billion people worldwide are in lockdown, as per shelter-in-place measures issued by cities, states, and countries in the hopes of staving off the effects of the novel coronavirus pandemic, which continues to spread across the globe at a harrowing pace. These shelter-in-place measures have indefinitely shut down most businesses, except for those deemed “essential.” Most law firms (considered “essential”) have remained open but have gone almost 100% remote, with only a few core employees working from the office to provide critical back-end support.
There is reason to believe that even after shelter-in-place orders are lifted, things will never go “back to normal.” Non-essential aspects of pre-corona busy-ness and wasteful spending are not likely to come back, especially in the wake of a significant economic contraction. This is not only because wallets will be slimmer, but because we will not be keen to over-run ourselves again after having found out for ourselves that less is indeed more. Many of the changed work practices happening now due to COVID-19 will help boost wellbeing, retention, productivity, and curb overhead costs going forward. Like any challenge, this crisis is also an opportunity to address many dire and existing issues, to rethink how we work. This is the opportunity to do that – the opportunity for reconfiguring workflows, understanding how we get distracted, and how we can maintain focus.
Although we tend to look back on our past with rose-colored glasses, especially in the wake of an uncontrollable negative event, the practice of law and daily life reached a clear infection point before the crisis that is difficult to ignore. For years, many firms have been facing an increasingly competitive legal services landscape, resulting in constant pressure to lower rates and provide speedier turnaround times. And as billable hour minimums have increased and administrative tasks have shifted to associates following overhead reductions, employee health, morale, and retention have dropped, along with productivity and efficiency.
And now, amidst the sadness and chaos, there are also silver linings. People are reporting having time to sleep and exercise again, to catch up with friends and family, breathing clean air. Many individuals, firms, and businesses are donating time and/or money to charity, and many overlooked social ills have stepped into the limelight. I anticipate or at least hope, that going forward, we can expect more telecommuting, virtual conferences, fewer uneaten meals, less non-essential business travel, more philanthropy.
Overnight, it has become essential for law firms and lawyers to become tech-competent and evident that expensive office space may not be as essential as we all thought. And this translates into real savings – the second-highest expense of a law firm’s budget is generally its office lease. Eliminating waste for both firms and individuals not only reduces overhead and recoups time previously lost in transit, but also makes for better and happier lawyers and more productive law firms. As in-person meetings and conferences have been canceled or moved online, and commutes have disappeared and we learn to make do with virtual meetings, webinars, virtual fitness classes, many of us are finding that we quite like this new reality. What’s more, we’re asking ourselves whether these were ever really essential. As one popular tweet noted, “COVID-19 helping people realise that some meetings can be emails.” And that it is not only possible to work from home in our industry, but as so many are finding out for themselves, working from home can truly be more efficient and sustainable. It has been exhausting to stay wedded to a 9-5 office structure, while also meeting the needs of a 24/7 marketplace that requires one to log in on mobile devices, on the go, at home, and virtually anywhere as the need arises. Working from home allows associates to make the most of the pockets of downtime inevitably built into their day, and allows for a better life-work fit, which isn’t just nice-to-have, but critical. Indeed, equally crucial to a law firm’s profitability is the mental and physical health of its staff. As I examined in an earlier installment in this series, high rates of attorney attrition, low morale, and reduced productivity directly and substantially reduce a firm’s bottom line.
Some BigLaw firms have found that they were not blind-sided by the need to move entire offices to the back-end, having the IT infrastructure, know-how, and culture in place to support remote work. Many of these offices had been moving towards a dynamic workspace model for years, for reasons that go beyond bottom lines and associate-side pressures for remote-working. Having realized that proximity is not a substitute for closeness and doesn’t necessarily mean collaboration, they have tried to make offices a point for real connection and meetings rather than a place to concentrate on work. Others are making additional investments now, like Skadden, Fried Frank, and Hueston Hennigan, which are directly investing in associates’ home office set-ups, understanding, no doubt, that higher/faster tech capacity on associates’ end is better for the firm’s bottom line (not to mention associates’ sanity).
Indeed, merely working side by side doesn’t necessarily result in exchange or collaboration. And office spaces are rife with interruption, and for the highly sensitive and introverted among us (not a small number), offices and their attendant stimuli can be overwhelming. For women, offices can be sites of unwarranted harassment, and parking garages at night can feel unsafe and scary. For those who never tried working from home, or who were suspicious that it could not be as effective, they may find that it is more operationally effective than before—that they can get more work done, in an undistracted manner.
Investments in remote work now born by necessity will pay off and, in a jump-started manner, usher in a law firm culture that not only allows remote work but encourages it. Offices will have changed into places for intentional connection and meetings, and not just vessels for working alone, together.
What could diminished overhead costs mean for fees and salaries? Will it translate into more resources for technology spending, like ZERØ that automates monotonous administrative tasks, boosting productivity, client satisfaction, and reducing the administrative burden on associates? As budgets are reallocated and shifted away from “non-essential” entertainment and recruitment expenses, law firms may discover that what young and mid-level associates really want are resources and leeway that lighten their load, contribute to their learning and wellbeing—an investment with returns for the firm, beyond one-time perks.