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The Big Ideas Shaping the Legal Profession in 2021

Written by: Ethan Cumming
Published on: 20 Jan 2021

Coronavirus brought the global economy to an abrupt standstill in 2020. A record number of people lost their jobs as whole industries were shut down and businesses struggled to stay afloat. Meanwhile, many other professionals started working from home in late March and have remained there since.

In the slowly receding shadow of a global pandemic, we take a look at the big ideas and trends set to shape the legal profession in 2021.


There will be a return to the office for some legal professionals...

For some law firm staff and in-house legal professionals, a return to the traditional workplace - or at least a partial return - is an inevitable eventuality.

“Since the pandemic arrived, many employers have been keen to get staff back into the office as soon as is practical,” says Jason Connolly, founder and CEO of JMC Legal Recruitment. “This has involved complex logistical challenges focused around how to ensure the workspace is ‘COVID safe’. With the recent arrival of the vaccine, we have seen a real sense of optimism within the legal community that we should return to some level of normality within a matter of months.”

James Catchpole, Associate Dean (Postgraduate and Professional Degree Programmes) at the City Law School, shares this sense of optimism.

“With luck there will be a gradual and careful return to the workplace for all during the Spring and into the Summer, followed by a blended form of working for the remainder of the year and then a gradual return to some sort of normal thereafter,” says James. “Remote working will be with us for the future, but there will be a return to physical meetings and workplaces; technology is not a substitute, it is a tool for facilitating working.”

However, with record numbers of Coronavirus cases in the UK and a new national lockdown now in place, a timeline for a return to the office remains uncertain.


...But remote working will have a permanent place in the profession

Although some law firms and other organisations are keen to get their teams back to the workplace, the past 10 months of remote working has had an irrefutable and irreversible impact on working patterns and behaviours in an industry that has until now been notoriously slow to adopt remote and flexible practices.

“If 2020 has taught as anything, it’s that nothing stays the same,” says Annette Thorpe, Managing Director at G2 Legal. “There will always be challenges and opportunities that make all individuals and businesses pause to take stock and reassess how to navigate the future.”

“Law firms have had to adapt – and fast,” she continues. “For many, probably most, the idea of lawyers working from home was, pre-2020, an anathema and considered not practical or workable. How wrong they all were. Yes, it was initially a logistical challenge and yes, a lot of trust had to be divested by management to employees, but clients needed servicing and business needed to be done – so did the location matter?”

As it turns out, the location did not matter. Although every business faced its own unique challenges, law firms have largely been successful in their transition to remote working. So much so that Connolly believes many firms - and the wider legal profession itself - have done “five years of evolution in five months.”

Connolly predicts many permanent changes to the working model of law firms post-COVID, including hot-desk working arrangements, flexibility as standard and downsized office spaces - particularly in Central London where rental prices come at a premium.

“I think many firms have realised that they do not necessarily need staff in the office every day,” he says. “With many Lawyers commuting over an hour each way daily, and with some even further afield, the pandemic has allowed them to be more efficient.”

Some firms are taking this outlook to its extreme, giving up entire office spaces in favour of a fully remote workforce.

For example, back in September Slater and Gordon moved out of its London office and its employees will continue to work from home permanently wherever possible through the end of the pandemic and beyond. For some, remote working is set to become the norm rather than the exception.


Employers will have to fight to get you back in the office

According to results from a survey we carried out in the autumn of 2020, 93% of legal professionals would like to regularly work remotely once office work resumes, meaning that the employers keen to return to physical workplaces are going to have to think carefully about how they tempt their staff back.

“I think many employers will be treading softly when it comes to encouraging staff to come back into the office,” Connolly tells us. “We’re seeing a lot of firms revising flexible working policies where staff will be allowed to work from home more often.”

Our survey also revealed that, of all the challenges associated with an abrupt pivot to remote working, the one that legal professionals found hardest to deal with was the lack of social interaction. 22% of our audience said that they struggled with not seeing their colleagues every day.

Law firms and other legal employers take note: if you want your employees to happily resume office working then you will need to give them a reason to return. Spaces designed specifically for collaborating and connecting with colleagues will be a sure-fire winner here.


Diversity and inclusion will be a focus for firms

The killing of George Floyd sparked Black Lives Matter protests across the globe last year.

In response, many employers - law firms, commercial organisations and public sector bodies alike - will be “changing their working practices and strategies in relation to diversity and inclusion and social mobility” says Thorpe.

Despite a general consensus that steps have been taken towards greater diversity and true inclusion in the legal profession, it’s widely agreed that much work remains to be done.

“Being a gay male myself, diversity and representation is a subject close to my heart,” Connolly told us. “I do think, although the legal sector has come a long way in terms of diversity and representation over the last decade, this has been helped and pressed forwards by virtue of the fact it is reported and covered in the media a lot more.”

“I do however still think there is a long way to go, not just in the legal world, but the working world in general.”

According to Connolly, many individuals in the LGBTQ+ community still feel unable to reveal their true identities in the workplace under the assumption that, to climb the career ladder, they “need to fit a mould of being in a traditional relationship.”

“There are so many benefits to having a fully inclusive, strong and diverse organisation,” he explains. “I recently spoke on my Career Success Podcast about the huge benefits of being fully inclusive and having a good representation at board levels. This has benefits in businesses moving forwards, evolving and appealing to clients from all walks of life.”


Recruiters will look for adaptable, bilingual and tech-savvy candidates

If 2020 taught us that nothing stays the same forever, then hiring practices in 2021 will be informed by that tough lesson.

First and foremost, candidates will need to be prepared to demonstrate adaptability. However unlikely it may be, if hit by another global crisis, businesses will want the assurance now more than ever that their workforce is able to successfully pivot to new ways of working without notice. Similarly, “resilience and the ability to deliver” will be high on the agenda for talent-seeking recruiters and hiring managers, according to Catchpole.

Additionally, the long-term impact of Brexit will mean “we are likely to see less talent move from Europe in the near future,” says Cat Clancy, founder and managing partner of Lunaria Partners.

“However, the work will remain international,” she continues, “so we are anticipating candidates with language skills to be in demand and that salaries may have to increase for such roles as firms compete for this talent.”

Meanwhile, Emma Stacey, Chief Executive at the Institute of Legal Secretaries and PAs, notes that continued remote working through the end of the pandemic and beyond is going to drive demand for enhanced IT skills among new recruits.

“Recruiters are going to be looking for candidates who are self-motivated and have good experience in managing their own workloads,” begins Stacey. “They will also need to be computer savvy so that they can manage their own setups as well as various different programmes, systems and platforms from home.”


Entry level candidates will face greater challenges than ever

Professionals early on in their careers, law graduates and those looking to break into the legal profession will face greater challenges than ever before, according to John Watkins, Director of Employability at the University of Law.

“The ‘lockdown’ generation will have had less exposure to the world of work which would often have included opportunities in retail, hospitality and other skill developing sectors as well as professional environments,” Watkins tells us. “As such they will have less experience in dealing with people – clients, colleagues, other stakeholders – and the nuances of work; the commute, the diversity of people, the time pressures and so on.”

“As importantly, the generation above will perceive there to be a significant learning gap and potentially be reluctant to employ or provide the additional support to help nurture inexperienced new joiners.”

And to solve this problem?

“New employees need to be empowered to ask for help,” states Watkins, “and for the time required to provide it to be recognised by employers as essential rather than as ‘lost’ productivity.”

Meanwhile, Clancy notes that it’s going to be even more difficult than usual for graduates looking to secure their first Paralegal role as the legal jobs market has swung from candidate-driven to employer-driven.

“We are seeing more activity, but firms are asking for more experience,” she explains. “Candidates will need to be very resilient and proactive in their job hunt. In the last recession we saw a number of law graduates turn to legal compliance roles which ended up being a fantastic career path. Compliance continues to thrive but is more difficult to break into as it is a more desirable career path now. Will law graduates turn to legal tech roles or legal project management this time?”

Regardless of whether entry level legal job seekers stick to the well-trodden path or take a more unorthodox route, Watkins has faith that this generation’s “enormous talent” will ultimately see them succeed.

“They have plenty to learn in terms of workplace etiquette and efficiency, but their knowledge base is extremely high,” he says. “Modern day Higher Education is not just providing quality academic learning; it is providing development of broader skills. University of Law students, for example, can expect to consider how to deal with conflict, navigate office politics (now with a virtual variant), as well as leadership and followership. This was unheard of 10 years ago (or even 5) and equips this generation with a grounding in the skills required to excel during a career rather than just having the ability to navigate recruitment processes.”


We’ll see an uptick in relocation

When asked about the year just gone, Clancy highlighted some of the progress she saw in what was otherwise a largely bleak year.

“I'm particularly excited about the positives for social mobility and those requiring home working,” she tells us. “I have been trying to get firms to video interview for years as there have always been talented professionals outside of London who are looking to relocate. However, as it can cost more to travel from Manchester to London than it can cost to fly to Spain, it was a real barrier for talent looking to move. They had to weigh up if it was worth a whole day’s pay to attend an interview that might be unsuccessful. Now, video interviews are the norm and I have already helped a number of candidates secure their dream role that they will relocate to once the lockdown ends.”


Client demands will drive technological uptake

When compared with other professional services industries, the legal profession has often been slower to adopt new technologies.

“Part of this has been fuelled by risk-averse Lawyers and the LLP model,” Connolly suggests, “as well as billable hours and how Lawyers are targeted.”

It would seem, however, that UK law firms have begun to come around to new tools, processes and tech-facilitated ways of working, accelerated by the impact of Coronavirus and increasingly complex client expectations.

“Consumers of legal services are now expecting a level of engagement that goes beyond an email catch up or telephone call; they want real time live updates regarding their matters and have much higher digital expectations,” says Connolly. “I think consumers are no longer just comparing law firm to law firm, they are comparing the level of service to that of companies like Amazon.”

Law firms are responding to this demand with surprising levels of agility and innovation.

“We have seen many firms implementing apps and systems that give clients real time updates. Many larger firms have also been investing in AI which has allowed them to make cutbacks on the amount of support staff they employ.”

What do you think are the most important ideas and trends set to shape the legal profession this year? Find us on LinkedIn, Facebook or Twitter to have your say.