The coronavirus pandemic has caused millions of people to work from home and forced thousands of companies to adapt to an environment where all or most of their employees are working remotely. For the legal industry, this unexpected and sudden transition to a virtual office model is likely to have a lasting effect. Before the pandemic, most law firms had little or no experience with a virtual office component to their business. Now these firms, and their attorneys, paralegals and staff, are experiencing the virtual office environment first-hand.
As a partner with ten years’ experience working in a virtual law firm, founded in 2008 as one of the pioneers in the virtual office movement, I have personally experienced both brick and mortar and virtual workplace scenarios. Prior to joining the virtual model, I had sixteen years of experience working in large and small law firms, with little or no options for working remotely. Based upon my considerable experience with both models, I believe that it is very possible that the coronavirus pandemic will mark the end of the strictly brick-and-mortar law firm model where everyone is required to commute to work and sit at their office desk all day, where face-time is key to upward mobility, and where investing in opulent, marble-floored office space with exquisite and pricey paintings on the walls is a good business decision. Below is a discussion of the primary forces behind this tectonic shift in the industry.
Law Firms Are Acquiring the Tools Necessary to Operate On A Virtual Office Model. Whether they like it or not, law firms are being forced to figure out how to operate in a virtual office environment. They will be acquiring new technology and/or adapting existing technology to ensure that their people are able to work effectively from home for extended periods of time, rather than just on occasion. For example, many traditional firms do not have adequate online tech support to address the volume of questions and repairs that result from a large portion of the workforce working from home. They will learn this quickly and will find solutions, such as investing in system upgrades and hiring the necessary IT professionals to support such arrangements.
Firms will also need to adopt solutions to the data privacy and other cyber security challenges associated with people working remotely. Examples include the use of two-factor authentication, encryption through virtual private networks (VPN’s), drive and data encryption on mobile devices and enhanced identity management and access control.
Beyond technology concerns, firms will have to adapt their policies and procedures for monitoring and enforcing productivity, because in a virtual office you can’t see what people are doing by simply walking down the hall. Most people will be equally as productive working from home as they were in the traditional office setting. Many people will be even more productive because they will not need to waste time commuting to work, and they will not be interrupted by the distractions found in a traditional office setting. However, not every employee possesses the discipline and focus needed to work from home effectively.
Firms will also find that the more their attorneys, paralegals, and staff are working remotely, the more they will need to take proactive measures to maintain a positive firm culture. When people are not working in the same office space, they can feel isolated, lonely, and out of touch. Such feelings can reduce morale and become a major impediment to maintaining a healthy practice. For example, firms may begin to implement regularly scheduled office-wide or firm-wide video conference calls, frequent check-in calls by group managers, a dedicated email group to chat online about various non-work topics, and even virtual happy hours in an effort to maintain connections among colleagues. These and other initiatives have allowed VLP to effectively promote a culture of collegiality and collaboration among attorneys, paralegals, and staff despite each person working from his or her own remote office location.
Attorneys, Paralegals and Staff Will Work from Home During the Pandemic and Like It. Having worked in a virtual office environment for the past ten years and having spent the previous sixteen years working in the traditional office setting, I can say with great confidence that the vast majority of people I have worked with over all of these years prefer working from home. Among the many benefits are less time (and money) spent commuting to work and back, no office distractions, a more flexible schedule, less stress, and more time spent with family and friends.
Stereotypes Associated With “Working from Home” Will Further Fade. There are some in the legal industry that still associate working from home with a lack of ambition and low productivity. In general, those that hold this view have had little or no direct experience with a virtual office model. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, thousands of law firms are being forced to adopt a virtual office environment, and as a result, virtually everyone in the legal industry will either personally experience the virtual office model to some extent or will know someone who has. Many of the stereotype believers will learn firsthand that working from home can be equally productive as working in a tradition law office setting (or more so). At the very least, the stereotype believers will have to acknowledge that it is feasible to operate a law firm on a virtual model, and that law firms might be forced to adopt a virtual model again in the future if an event such as the coronavirus pandemic occurs again.
Conclusion. It is very possible that the combination of (1) law firms acquiring the tools necessary to operate on a virtual office model, (2) attorneys, paralegals and staff demanding more flexibility to work from home in light of their positive experience working from home during the coronavirus pandemic, and (3) the further fading of the stereotypes in the legal industry associated with working from home, will result in an unprecedented shift in the legal industry toward embracing some version of the virtual office model. I don’t expect hordes of brick and mortar firms to suddenly shed their offices completely and become entirely virtual, but I do expect two things. First, when the dust from the coronavirus pandemic settles, there will be an industry-wide shift in the number of attorneys, paralegals, and staff that work from home. The increase will be substantial, and I expect the number of people working from home to only increase over time. Second, the increased demand for greater flexibility to work from home will result in an increase in the number of attorneys, paralegals, and staff working in virtual law firms with no brick and mortar footprint. Brick and mortar firms will have varying levels of success marrying their traditional office model with a virtual office component, and people may find that a law firm that has fully embraced the virtual office model is a better fit for them.
This could be the dawn of the virtual office revolution in the legal industry.