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Remote working for legal professionals: Does it work?

Written by: Ethan Cumming
Published on: 29 Sep 2020

Remote working legal professionals

As the UK’s leading specialist legal job board, we are in a unique position to explore the attitudes and opinions of high calibre legal professionals operating in-house and in practice across a variety of industries. So, last month we asked the TotallyLegal audience to fill out a survey about how the Coronavirus pandemic and ensuing lockdown had impacted their working lives.

A huge 94% of respondents told us that they had been working remotely since March, and 77% are still in the dark regarding when they will return to the office. 57% said they were afforded remote working opportunities prior to the outbreak of COVID-19, meaning that the majority of our audience went into lockdown with at least some idea of what to expect. However, a significant portion (37%) went from full-time office workers to remote professionals overnight.

This report analyses the responses of our audience to determine attitudes towards working from home within the legal profession and whether it is a sustainable model for the law firms like Slater and Gordon who have already decided to pursue permanent remote working.

Sector Splits

Although the majority of legal professionals have been working from home because of the Coronavirus pandemic, some practice areas saw a higher percentage of workers who were not afforded such privileges.

Most notably, 67% of those working in immigration law continued to visit their place of work each day during the pandemic, as did 33% of criminal law specialists and 22% of residential property legal practitioners.

“The results of this recent survey conducted by TotallyLegal I personally do not think are too surprising,” says Jason Connolly, Chief Executive Officer of specialist agency JMC Legal Recruitment. “Professionals in certain practice areas such as crime and immigration are required by most normal practices to see clients in person. It would be hard to accommodate working from home with some of the challenges associated with seeing these clients.”

Thomas Crea, Consultant at Interlink Recruitment, agrees with Jason’s observations.

“When you think about it, it's understandable why those working in immigration and criminal law haven't had as much opportunity to work from home. When it comes to dealing with personal immigration matters, especially those of a contentious nature, face-to-face meetings are crucial,” Thomas explains, “and in many cases, documentation to support evidence may not, or cannot be done electronically. Similarly, for Criminal Lawyers, their need for client representation has seen them more likely to have to travel to work. Both are very much on the front line in these practice areas.”

“Accessibility to technology could also be another factor at play here,” Thomas adds, “with smaller, more traditional law firms perhaps not having the infrastructure to support as much remote working as their counterparts in similar practice areas.”

Productivity & Performance

When asked to assess their own levels of productivity working remotely versus in the office, the vast majority (79%) of respondents think they are more productive when at home. 53% of those told us that their increased output was thanks to fewer distractions, while a further 20% indicated that an environment without office politics allowed them to work to the best of their ability. For a further 12%, the efficiency of remote meetings contributed the most to their increased productivity.

The 21% of our audience who feel lower levels of productivity when working remotely blame their reduced output on infrequent opportunities to collaborate with colleagues (36%) and limited access to equipment and resources (22%).

Although overall responses indicate that the majority of respondents in each age group prefer remote working, there are some variations between each bracket.

For example, a quarter of legal practitioners under the age of 40 claim to be less productive when working from home, compared to only 18% for those over 40. The majority (53%) of younger legal professionals (those under the age of 40) agree that fewer opportunities to collaborate with colleagues contribute most to lower levels of productivity when working from home. However, the argument switches for older respondents who mostly (32%) blame unproductivity on limited access to equipment and resources.

For employers looking to enable fully remote and highly productive legal workforces, the opinions, attitudes and needs of different groups of workers must be considered. In this instance, equal provisions must be made for the social interactions and collaboration on which younger professionals thrive and for the technical support on which older workers rely to work effectively.

Productivity also seems to vary among job titles, with a particularly high percentage of both General Counsel (43%) and Legal Secretary (43%) respondents feeling less productive when remote working, despite being very different roles. For Legal Secretaries, lower productivity may be attributed to the challenges of providing remote support to individuals and teams. Meanwhile, General Counsel, the most senior members of in-house legal staff, may be spending more time on telephone calls and video conferences than they would usually spend in meetings, leading to a productivity fall in other areas.

Challenges & Benefits

Commuting work from home

For our audience, the greatest benefits of working from home were to do with saving money and taking back control of time. Half of all respondents told us that not commuting every day was the greatest benefit of remote working, while a further 16% said that the money saved from not travelling and eating out was the best perk. 13% said they most appreciated the greater flexibility in working hours afforded by remote working.

The desire to avoid commuting and, ultimately, save time was reiterated when respondents who indicated that they prefer a video meeting over a more traditional rendezvous were asked why. 37% chose “no travelling is required” over other, less popular but more practical options such as “everyone has an opportunity to contribute” (19%) and “useful tools and functions” (22%).

Clearly, for legal professionals, taking back control of their time and money is of utmost importance. Even those employers who intend to eventually return to their offices need to consider new ways of working that promote a healthier work/life balance than is traditionally associated with the long working hours of the legal profession.

For respondents who felt like they have had more time on their hands since working remotely, those extra hours have largely been spent on self-care, with 39% indulging their hobbies while a further 34% were resting and relaxing.

Meanwhile, the challenges of remote working for legal professionals have been both practical and personal in nature, with 22% saying that the hardest part was not seeing colleagues while another 20% said they struggled to work effectively with limited access to equipment and resources.

Facing the Future

It’s true that 57% of our audience were afforded the opportunity to work from home before the pandemic, but 27% of those only worked from home once per month and a further 32% once per week.

Now, however, 93% of respondents agree that they would like the opportunity to regularly work remotely once office work resumes in order to continue to save time and money. Only 2% now want to work from home once per week, while the rest want to operate remotely a few times per week (43%), as often as they like (31%) or every day (23%).

Future work from home

Fortunately for the legal professionals who want to work from home more often in the future, it seems that employers are embracing the remote lifestyle.

“We have found there has been a surge in opportunities that allow remote working,” says Jason Connolly, “and while there has been more on the commercial side, there is a vast increase on the individuals side too. At JMC, we have seen a 62% increase in working from home opportunities. I feel that COVID has altered the working model for good, I think this new way of working is likely to stick.”

The vast majority (91%) of legal professionals agreed that their employers adapted well to remote working. Nevertheless, 53% think there is still room for improvement, indicating that their employers could have done a better job in areas such as supplying equipment and resources (33%), as well as communicating the latest developments (14%).

According to Jason, the employers who adapted well are likely to be the ones who had already begun to enable a remote workforce prior to the pandemic.

“Legal has always traditionally been somewhat behind on the times compared with other industry sectors when it comes to agile working and working from home,” he told us. “Firms that have adapted to good technology in previous years have been able to switch to remote working much more easily, while firms that are still behind when it comes to things like case files and paper have found the switch much more challenging.”

If remote working is set to continue in any capacity within the legal profession - which is what the majority of its practitioners seem to want - employers will need to step up in terms of how they support their staff. Individuals’ needs must be listened and catered to in order for work to be completed to a high standard. Workers need the tools to do their jobs and opportunities to collaborate with colleagues, plus frequent, honest communication from their employers.

Above all, the success of future remote working schemes in the legal profession relies on flexibility. Yes, 93% of respondents would like to work remotely post-pandemic, but 31% of those want the freedom to choose when they visit the office and when they stay at home. Enforcing company-wide permanent remote working will inevitably result in some disgruntled professionals, so the approach of any law firm or other legal employer looking to enable a virtual workforce must be consultative, flexible and inclusive.