My office is my sofa: why more lawyers are working from home

Agile working, flexible working or whatever one wants to call it, is a growing phenomenon. What these euphemisms for ‘sometimes working from home’ indicate is that there is an appetite for lawyers to not be permanently stuck in the air conditioned boxes where they would otherwise spend a large part of their adult lives.

More and more law firms are offering their lawyers, mostly junior lawyers it seems at the moment, the opportunity to work remotely. Some also allow support staff to work from home. How many days a week or per month this is allowed varies. Firms are no doubt testing the waters before allowing their lawyers totally off the leash and out of the gates.

Why is this happening and why now?

Throughout history there have been lawyers who one day were sitting at their desks in the firm’s office, proofreading a contract for the tenth time that week when a thought popped into their heads: ‘Hey, I could just do this kind of thing at home. It would be a lot more convenient and it would make no difference at all to the work I’m doing for the client.’

Yet, it’s only really in the last few years that law firms have been embracing this seemingly obvious fact. Why? The first reason that is trotted out is that it’s all due to ‘Millennials’. Personally I’m not a big fan of typecasting hundreds of millions of people around the world by the year they were born.

Perhaps a better way of looking at generational change is that as technology, society and the economy changes so do opportunities for new types of behaviour and those changes tend to come in waves. Technology now allows us to conduct nearly our entire professional lives from our sofas, if that is what we want. From their sofa a lawyer can:

  • Do all and any text-based work including email and share documents with the main office and everyone who works there (obviously).
  • Share documents with clients and other parties via secure cloud systems.
  • Make voice calls including teleconferences (obviously).
  • Do video calls and conferences via Skype or other systems (again obviously).

There isn’t really anything that a lawyer does in their office that they can’t do at home. All that is missing is the human contact of a face-to-face variety. If there is a client meeting then one simply has to hop on a train, but otherwise, there is no overriding reason to be in the office with today’s IT capabilities.

So, that’s the glory of technology. But, the question remains: why are firms offering this now?

One reason is simply that people have decided they want it and they feel it is doable. Moreover, there is a new wave of managing partners who are comfortable with the latest IT and can appreciate there are few good reasons left to deny someone the chance to work at home occasionally.

Another reason is that in a legal market where salaries are constantly on the rise again, there is a competitive advantage to law firms in terms of talent retention if they can offer home working. All other things being equal a young lawyer may choose to work at a law firm that offers working from home over another very similar firm where it is not permitted.

One other reason is that there is a steady stream of lawyers leaving fulltime private practice to join ‘lawyers on demand’ groups that allow them to work flexibly. Sometimes these lawyers have young families and clearly working from home helps there. But lawyers without young families are also taking up the opportunity. It’s across the board and across age groups. So, again, to deny flexible working risks losing talent to on demand groups.

 But, won’t home workers waste time/go AWOL?

The waste time/go AWOL myth is the greatest barrier to the acceptance of home working, as the technology has been there for several years.

The reality is that people who like to work at home are usually self-disciplined. Also, as a lawyer with a timesheet and almost 24/7 contactability it’s not really possible ‘to hide’ from work or one’s colleagues even at home. Moreover, missing a deadline sitting on one's sofa is no different to missing a deadline sitting at a desk in an office: you simply don't miss deadlines. Many people are happy like this and accept the need to manage themselves and are good at it.

However, some people love being in an office full of other people. It energises them. They feel more part of the whole when they are physically present. Some managers also feel that they are not really in charge of anything if they cannot see people working. There is probably not much point trying to convince people who love office life to work, or manage others, from home. But, likewise it’s not that beneficial to force people who do great work at home to come to the office where they may possibly do less great work.

The world’s companies, and law firms, have many introverts and extroverts working within them. Myers-Briggs personality research has found that introverts are among the most common lawyer types, which perhaps is not a surprise. In which case, isn’t forcing naturally-inclined introverts to gather in buildings in large groups trying to push square pegs into round holes?

In short, why not let law firms work with their lawyers’ personality types, rather than work against them?

How does this benefit law firms?

As noted above, there is a clear talent retention benefit. But there are other benefits:

  • A happier, more satisfied workforce whose improved satisfaction levels may in turn rub off on clients and the work product in general. Also likely is less time off for illness and stress, which also boosts productivity.
  • Savings on office costs. If staff can hot desk and ‘X’ number are always not in the office at any one time then a firm can shave off a noticeable amount of office space that is needed. That in turn moves straight through to the bottom line. As many firms appreciate, improving profit margins at present is difficult. So, homeworking could provide some benefits here.
  • The ability to create more flexible working patterns. For example, more people may be willing to work at ‘anti-social’ times on a regular basis if they were allowed to do this from home. If you are a ‘night owl’ type of person why not get one’s work done in the hours that best suit you? Again, it’s an example of working with people’s natural characters, rather than working against them by trying to have a ‘one size fits all’ office culture.

 Conclusion

Working from home is clearly not for everyone. Some people love offices and would hate to miss out on the social ‘buzz’ of being in a busy open plan space, full of activity.

Others would rather be on the sofa, a MacBook on their lap, working from home but in full contact with everyone else who needs to reach them.

Both types are productive and in reality firms do certainly need some people who want to come into the office from time-to-time, at least to meet clients and remind each other what everyone looks like.

In conclusion, home working options will increasingly become a hiring differentiator for law firms, at least until the next recession at which point what associates want will go out the window as it always usually does. But, if we don’t have a Brexit-inspired recession in 2016 and salaries and office costs keep rising, then I would venture that many more law firms will embrace ‘agile working’.

Richard Tromans, Founder, TromansConsulting
'Strategic Advice For Growing Law Firms'
www.TromansConsulting.com

Filed Under: Practice of Law

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