Three Challenges That Law Firms Need To Tackle To Create a Successful Hybrid Work Environment
JOY A. LONG
The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in the spring of 2020 forced many law firms to have lawyers and staff work remotely. Prior to the pandemic, some law firm leaders had previously been adamantly opposed to this setup. However, many have learned how effective the switch to working remotely can be. This blog highlights the pros and cons that law firms should weigh before making a so-called “hybrid” work environment part of their firm’s new normal.
The Advantage of Hybrid Work Arrangements
Generally, firms that go to a hybrid model allow their attorneys — and sometimes staff — to split their time between remote and in-office work. The percentages vary by firm, but most firms allow their people to work from home 20% to 50% of the time depending on the needs of their role.
The advantages of hybrid models are numerous. To begin with, top-level attorneys and support staff increasingly demand such arrangements. It also opens up the pool of talent available to your firm because firms can more easily recruit people in other cities or states where they may not have offices.
Some firms have experienced a boost in performance from veteran and new attorneys working remotely. The absence of office disruptions can lead to higher levels of concentration and productivity for some remote workers, and they are happier without the stress of commuting. Overall, they enjoy a better work-life balance.
Fewer workers in the office every day usually shrinks the real estate footprint required. Expenses related to overhead, business meals and travel also drop.
Professional development can benefit as well. After all, it is easier and far less expensive for associates to participate in virtual depositions and client meetings than in-person ones.
Potential Hybrid Work Hurdles
Even with the many advantages discussed above, hybrid work environments are not without their possible downsides. Three major stumbling blocks that have emerged are:
- Remote Work is Not Right for Everyone
Some people working remotely struggle with the isolation and lack of in-person supervision. Moreover, newer associates may find it hard to sustain mentor relationships, which could hinder their advancement. To mitigate this risk, firms can designate one or two days per week as in-office days when everyone must come to the office. Work on those days should focus on collaboration and training, rather than more solitary work that can be performed remotely.
Leaders may need training on how to manage in the new environment. Associates, in turn, should receive coaching on how to create and nurture vital relationships with higher-ups and form appropriate work habits to avoid the pitfalls of remote work. Knowledge management systems can help them learn about such matters as the billing system and other essential software and tools.
- Office Layout Impediments
Firms also should rethink their office layout. The main offices of hybrid firms will be used more for interacting with other staff than working alone at a desk. Consider shifting from a layout where people are holed up in their separate offices to a more open workspace with greater opportunities for casual exchanges. Likewise, you might set up “project rooms” for team collaboration instead of just a dedicated workspace for individuals. It is also important to bring calm and comfort to your workspace by using space design and furniture to create a comfortable aesthetic.
As firms inevitably reduce their need for office space, they may need to design efficient hoteling systems. These allow staff to schedule the use of workspace for when they plan to be in the office.
- Culture Clashes
Hybrid work arrangements can produce resistance, resentment, confusion and controversy among employees. For example, in-office workers may believe (usually wrongly, according to studies) that their remote counterparts are not working as hard as they do. And new employees may find it difficult to form connections with their remote colleagues. Firms need to prepare and manage expectations when they set remote working rules for staff, especially if the rules for different departments vary (e.g., lawyers versus administrative and other support staff).
Firm leaders must also devote some forethought and planning as to how they can foster bonds to cultivate and maintain the firm’s culture. Often, formal firm- or practice-wide team-building initiatives can help bring your staff together.
Related Read: Making Remote Work… Work
Seize the Moment
Traditionally, change tends to happen slowly at law firms. The pandemic has created a unique opportunity for firm leaders to test drive a radically different way of conducting business. Achieving success as a hybrid office is a moving target. Contact your ORBA advisor to help develop and review metrics, such as productivity and turnover in order to make the necessary adjustments.
Sidebar: Cybersecurity Takes Center Stage
The move to a hybrid work environment comes with mounting cyber risks spread out over your firm’s main office and its remote offices. The FBI saw a dramatic uptick in reports of cybercrimes during the pandemic. And hackers will surely turn their attention to the vulnerabilities of businesses introducing new practices for the long run.
Related Read: Do Not Go Phish: How to Reduce Your Risk of Cyberattacks
This means that cybersecurity must be considered before implementing significant changes to the way your office is structured. Firms should, for example, budget for real-time threat monitoring software on all devices used inside and outside of the office. Remote workers must be required to update software applications on a timely basis (including non-work apps used on the same device as work apps).
Law firms that already employ two-factor authentication for network and system access may want to adopt three-factor authentication. This can incorporate face, voice or fingerprint recognition. Additionally, employees at all levels should receive ongoing training on identifying and avoiding phishing schemes, which exploded as remote work became more common.
Document Review Goes Remote
ROBERT G. SWENSON, CPA, MST
Every attorney knows that document review is a critical component of discovery. Most clients know this, too, but they might not know that a large portion of document review during the pandemic was done remotely. Now both clients and attorneys are wondering — and sometimes worrying — about whether remote document review is here to stay.
The case for continuing
Cost saving is the most obvious benefit of remote review and a factor that often appeals to budget-conscious clients. With much lower overhead and few to no travel expenses, the use of remote reviewers allows firms to pass the savings on to clients.
But the most important driver might be the ongoing labor shortage. Hiring squeezes can make it tough to find qualified reviewers locally at an affordable rate.
Similarly, allowing remote document review makes it significantly easier to scale up for large projects with large amounts of material. Attorneys can assemble more inclusive teams than might otherwise be possible. They also enjoy greater access to reviewers who offer specific areas of expertise, such as intellectual property, engineering or scientific experience, as well as foreign language fluency.
Despite the advantages, attorneys may encounter some resistance to remote document reviews from clients. Remember, clients who had remote reviewers working on their cases throughout the pandemic may not even have been aware of it. Their primary concern probably will be the security of remote reviews.
Clients may imagine family members or customers in a coffee shop walking by the reviewer and getting a plain view of confidential or potentially damaging information. But many tools are available to help ensure that materials are kept secure.
Initially, remote reviewers should be held to the same minimum standards as other types of remote workers. These include the use of antivirus and malware protection software on every device and other access management practices.
Beyond those security measures, consider requiring remote reviewers to install attention and screen monitoring software. These tools use biometrics and automatically log out when a reviewer steps away from the computer. It also may be beneficial to strictly prohibit document downloading and to restrict use of all devices to only the reviewer.
The reviewer’s physical work area must be secure, too. Environment monitoring software can perform a 360-degree scan of the space, prior to permitting access, to confirm that no one else is in the vicinity. And reviewers should not have unauthorized peripheral devices (such as printers, keyboards, mouses, thumb drives and monitors) connected while working.
Remote workers of every flavor often are subject to suspicions about their diligence. Attention and screen monitoring software can help assuage this worry by demonstrating to clients that reviewers are not “dilly-dallying.” Numerous metrics also are available to measure productivity.
What about the collaboration and information sharing that comes from a group of reviewers working together in the same space? Not to worry. Slack, Microsoft Teams and similar products can reproduce much of this synergy, combining the ability to have private or group chats with secure screen-sharing capabilities.
The wave of the future?
Remote document review may join the ranks of pandemic-induced changes to the legal industry that are hard to put back in the bottle. Attorneys can use their powers of persuasion and the information above to help guide clients through the transition.