The challenges posed by remote working must be recognised - and then overcome

While many lawyers see remote work as crucial to improving diversity, some remain sceptical over its effect on associate productivity and client service

Is it practical for law firm associates to spend much of their time working from home without undermining the quality of their work? 

If you believe the many pronouncements firms have been making as they implement new flexible post-pandemic return to work plans, the answer to this question is ‘yes’.  

“We have learned that we can serve our clients at the highest level in a work environment that includes flexibility, and that this arrangement offers significant benefits to our people as well,” was how Sandy Thomas, Reed Smith’s global managing partner put it back in May. 

Morgan Stanley’s chief legal officer, Eric Grossman, is more sceptical. A letter to law firms last week called on its outside counsel to follow the banking giant’s staff ‘largely back’ to the office model, warning that as a 'general rule' Zoom would not be facilitated for ‘critical’ meetings.  

He added that the law firm apprenticeship model requires young lawyers to work together physically. And he made what seems to be an entirely valid point: that the ability of associates to respond to a once-in-a-lifetime crisis and work remotely is one thing; making this permanent another matter entirely. The bank of knowledge they picked up while working together physically as a team was likely to dissipate over time, he maintained. 

Even during the pandemic, senior lawyers were worrying about the productivity of their associates. A survey by Global Legal Post in February found 46% of the respondents believed the productivity of associates had deteriorated during lockdown

By introducing more flexible working arrangements, however, law firms are not simply accommodating the wishes of associates in the teeth of a salary war that puts them in a strong bargaining position. 

Notwithstanding Grossman’s hard-nosed intervention, many general counsel are putting pressure on law firms to improve their diversity and inclusion records as part of a pursuit of the ESG agenda. And remote working is a crucial means to achieving this end. 

Research by Thomson Reuters in November last year didn’t pull its punches when it warned firms against setting up women-only networks and reverse mentoring programmes – attempts to ‘fix femaleness’ as it memorably dubbed such measures.  

Instead it said firms needed to combat ‘the rigid working practices of many law firms’ that place women at a disadvantage. The Covid-19 pandemic has added unexpected momentum to the process by which such practices are being broken down. 

This momentum has seen Slaughter and May unveil a series of well-thought-out proposals this month to allow for flexible working without compromising service, including so-called project-led flexibility. 

Slaughters is a key adviser to Vodafone, which in April announced a new roster of advisers selected on the basis of a shared commitment to promoting diversity targets and environmental, social and governance (ESG) best practice. 

Vodafone’s GC Rosemary Martin is a long-time admirer of Slaughters, but that doesn’t provide it with a licence to compromise on service delivery. The measures it has introduced are designed to ensure that doesn’t happen, though implementing them successfully won’t be easy and they will surely add to the firm’s costs.  

But in the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic market forces, including the accelerating ESG agenda, require that the old ways are no longer an option for law firms.  

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