- For the first time during the Pandemic, law firms made mission-critical decisions about evolving their technology.
The pandemic forced many of us to implement several technologies that we had never considered before. Maybe for the first time, law firms made mission-critical decisions about evolving their technology to meet the completely new dynamics of lawyer-staff-client interactions and getting work done remotely during a pandemic. With surprising speed and ease, most firms, whether big or small, successfully made major pivots in a matter of weeks.
Technology adoption within law firms usually moves very slowly. Yet the necessity created by the pandemic pushed firms to adopt new technologies to enable remote work and engage clients in new and different ways in a time frame most would have said was impossible. Legal observers and experts commonly observe that pandemic-driven technology changes moved the profession forward a decade or more in the first several months of the pandemic.
But fast-forward to today, and many firms seem to be making a U-turn that sees them pushing hard for a return to the office. Given the level of productivity achieved while working remotely, the acceptance by clients of virtual meetings and activities, and the overwhelming desire of employees for flexible schedules, what is driving firms to push for a return to pre-pandemic de rigueur of an office-centric mode of operation?
It can’t be the technology causing this reversal. Use of laptops and cloud-based technologies soared in law firms and other businesses during the pandemic. Videoconferencing tools such as Zoom, collaboration platforms such as Microsoft Teams, and other productivity and cloud-based storage tools continue to be widely used, and they are adding features and functions that are making them better. According to the 2022 ABA Legal Technology Survey Report, cloud usage among lawyers has increased significantly in the last few years and is now at 70%. Clients and law firm staff have embraced the ability to work and collaborate remotely. Nothing in the marketplace suggests these new technologies are no longer wanted or worth using. Everything suggests that firms will continue to use these tools, as they allow better client service and make lawyers and law firm staff more productive.
Are clients behind this move to have lawyers return to the office? The 2021 Clio Legal Trends Report shows that two-thirds of clients prefer a lawyer who offers both in-person and virtual communication options. However, except for a few in-person meetings in the office, clients are content with Zoom or Teams meetings and the more traditional email, phone and texting communication options. So, no, it’s not the clients who are pushing lawyers back to the office.
So what is driving this current trend? It seems that firms are relying on and desirous of preserving their existing culture. Intentionally or otherwise, they are reacting to the long-held belief in the benefits that come from a law office setting. Firm culture is the character and personality of a firm coupled with the attitudes and behaviors of the people within it. It is an amalgam of the people, policies, history, expectations and norms that exist across the enterprise. It determines the personality of a firm and influences the types of people who end up working at a firm, and can even drive away some people. Culture sets a tone and direction for almost everything that goes on in a firm. A perception that the benefits of an office-based culture are lost with remote work seems to be driving the return to the office for many law firms.
Unlike the conscious and intentional decisions at the start of the pandemic to strategically and practically use new technologies to align productivity and the interests of firm, staff and clients, the culture-driven return to the office seems more about what firm leadership wants. If that is the result the firm wants, would it not be better to consider and discuss the implications with the same transparency and inclusivity as the decisions to work remotely and productively in 2020?
To support a return to the office, the leadership of most firms say they believe that work in an office environment is more productive and collegial than remote work. But some firms, and the majority of lawyers and staff, will say they are just as productive, or even more so, when working from home. Is a move back to what feels comfortable a siren song for law firms?
There are widely different answers to this question that come from many perspectives. We’ve had less than two years of practice to learn to work remotely, whereas most law firms and lawyers have had many years, or even decades, of experience practicing from an office setting. Familiarity or comfort shouldn’t create an inertia pulling firms back to the old way when there is still much to learn about our new working environment.
Even if the firm feels more comfortable returning to the old ways, should it really be done in isolation? Isn’t it best to engage those clients we serve to see what they want? Do they feel more comfortable returning to the old ways of meeting, communicating and collaborating? And then there’s firm employees. They pivoted to home when that was best for everyone, so shouldn’t they be part of the process of determining where to work and be the most productive?
Microsoft’s September 2022 Work Trend Index Special Report is absolutely illuminating on this issue:
“One thing is clear: We’re not the same people that went home to work in early 2020. The collective experience of the past two years has left a lasting imprint, fundamentally changing how we define the role of work in our lives. The data shows the Great Reshuffle is far from over. Employees everywhere are rethinking their ‘worth it’ equation and are voting with their feet. And as more people experience the upsides of flexible work, the more heavily it factors into the equation. For Gen Z and Millennials, there’s no going back. And with other generations not far behind, companies must meet employees where they are.”
The report outlines five urgent trends that businesses, including law firms, need to address:
Law firms that include employees and clients in determining where to work and how to best do it will be more successful in the long run. In light of the Great Resignation (or Great Reshuffle, as we prefer), it is best for firms to look forward rather than merely turn back to old habits that seem warm and friendly. Those firms that do fall back and require employees to return to the office on a full-time basis may well find themselves short of good talent in a year or two.
And perhaps the parallels in the changes the courts experienced during the pandemic give us some additional perspective. While they didn’t pivot quite as quickly as law firms, most courts ultimately shifted to doing motions, pre-trial and even trials remotely in a virtual environment. From a pre-pandemic perspective, these changes would have been considered impossible by most litigators. So, do we see a similar push back to the courtroom? No, litigation lawyers, their clients, judges and court staff see and accept the benefits of remote hearings for minor and procedural matters, and the practicality of running longer or more complex trials in a traditional setting. Combining the best of the old and the new is working in the courts—a lesson law firms should pay heed to.