Before Covid-19, working from home was relatively rare in the legal profession. Eighteen months after the start of the pandemic, with many lawyers yet to return to work, it looks like remote working will be a mainstay of the profession for some time. But what do lawyers think and what new working practices do they want to see sustainable?
Thomson Reuters surveyed nearly 2,500 top performing lawyers and partners around the world, including 445 in the UK and 571 in the US, to find out how their working practices had changed as a result of the pandemic and how they wanted to work in the future. The results are clear: most respondents want to retain some degree of flexibility, with the ability to work flexible hours and from home, at least part of the time. In fact, less than one in ten wanted to return to fixed hours in the office full time.
Flexibility in determining working hours
Almost two-thirds (63%) of UK lawyers surveyed in March 2021 said they wanted to work flexible rather than fixed hours. This is almost three times the proportion who worked flexible hours before the pandemic. In the United States, 43% of lawyers worked flexible hours before Covid, which rose to 61% when asked what their preference was for the future.
A higher demand for flexible working hours does not mean that lawyers avoid long working hours. Indeed, 10-hour working days remain the norm for British lawyers, as in the United States. However, it is evident that lawyers are increasingly determined to work when they want to, adjusting to life around work.
Lawyers want to work from home more often, but working remotely has had its challenges
The majority of respondents in the US and UK said they prefer to spend more time working from home than in the office. In both the UK and the US, lawyers want to spend an average of 2.1 days working from home, compared to just 0.6 (0.7 in the US) before Covid.
That’s not to say that hybrid work – splitting time between work at home and in the office – has been a completely fluid process. Until 2020, lawyers said they faced challenges in working collaboratively, in business development, and in helping junior lawyers develop the skills and experience they need to progress.
Nevertheless, many lawyers have since found solutions to these challenges. The common theme of respondents was that communication was intentional, whether with clients or team members. Through regular and focused interactions, project management, relationships and knowledge sharing can be effectively maintained even when people are not always physically together.
A clearer line between work and personal time
Working from home means that the lines between work and personal life have become blurred in some ways. Perhaps this is why many lawyers are keen to set parameters for their availability.
In the UK, nearly a fifth of those polled said they did not want to be contacted on weekends, much more than in the US where 8% wanted the restriction. Just under a quarter (23%) of UK respondents said they would like contact hours to be limited on weekdays, for example no communication before 7:00 a.m. or after 11:00 p.m. This compares to 16% in the United States
Despite this, 43% of UK respondents said they believe there should be no limits with clients and that lawyers should be available 24/7. In the United States, that number climbs to 61%, with a global average of 49%. Even among those who said metrics should be in place, a quarter in the UK (and 28% in the US) said they would not be comfortable discussing it with their clients.
It is clear from the survey that flexibility is key – long hours, including working on weekends, are likely to remain a constant within the legal profession. However, lawyers want the flexibility to achieve a better work-life balance, whether that’s taking time to check their emails or blocking out times when they can’t be contacted.
What can be done to ensure new ways of working for companies and their customers?
Senior executives who wish to attract and retain top legal talent need to be aware of this paradigm shift in working practices. Rather than adopting general policies dictating how much time should be spent working in the office or what hours lawyers should be at their desks, they should empower individuals to make decisions that will allow them to do their best.
Having conversations with customers about how to meet their expectations will give businesses a clear indication of the resources required to provide high levels of service. This will ultimately help law firms to balance their staff and client satisfaction, leading to better business and staff retention.
Lucy Leach is Senior Technical Research Manager at Thomson Reuters