Analysis

New Normal Of Legal Telework Likely To Outlast Pandemic

By Xiumei Dong
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Law360 (July 24, 2020, 4:17 PM EDT) -- The coronavirus has forced the majority of the legal workforce out of the office, but as firm leaders learn that their attorneys and staff can work efficiently from home, many say it is unlikely that they will ever go back to the prepandemic way of work.

Surveys have found most lawyers and law firm staff enjoy working from home and would like to continue doing so in some capacity even when offices are fully reopened following the pandemic. (iStock.com/Andrey Popov)

Several firms have already begun exploring options to make remote working a permanent part of their firm's culture.

"As tragic and as difficult and challenging COVID-19 has been, we also started to see some positive for our business in terms of everybody working with technology that they have learned, everybody embracing video meetings and interacting," said John Langan, managing partner at Barclay Damon LLP.

The nearly 300-attorney firm announced a plan in late May to reopen all 12 of its offices across the Northeast, but instead of asking employees to return to the office, the firm is giving all attorneys and staff the option to work remotely for the rest of the year.

If that ends up going well, Langan said, the firm is considering making telework a permanent option for all personnel.

"We want people to approach it from a perspective of what they need to do to serve our clients and support each other," he said. "If they can do all that from their living room, then that's great, and we're going to be supportive of that."

There are signs everywhere that, when it comes to work arrangements, firms aren't simply waiting to go back to the old normal. For example, Kansas City, Missouri-based Husch Blackwell LLP earlier this month launched its first-ever virtual office, called The Link, which is composed of an initial group of 38 attorneys and 12 legal professionals who will be teleworking indefinitely.

Bob Bratt, DLA Piper's chief operating officer, told Law360 his firm had just finished a paper consisting of "a bunch of" different pilot projects that will allow the firm to test its work-from-home capabilities.

"Our firm has learned that we can be productive, we can continue to support our clients and working from home, but there's a range of issues that we need to understand better moving forward," Bratt said, citing concerns such as employees' mental health and their ability to maintain a work-life balance.

"Everything has worked fine for months, but there's an uncertainty on whether in the long term there's going to be a negative side to it," Bratt added. "So, we want to test."

Bratt said DLA Piper recently conducted an internal survey and found that most of the attorneys and staff that responded want to have some level of flexibility going forward, ranging from permanent telework to coming into the office just a few days a week.

Therefore, the pilot projects will vary for groups in different demographics and geographies, Bratt explained, such as that some of the projects may allow the participating employees to telework permanently or use office hot desks, while others are given the option to take a certain amount of days out of the office.

"One size won't fit all," he said. "We're going to try a bunch of things in order to figure out what works and what doesn't work long-term."

At a July 22 panel event hosted by real estate services provider Savills plc, leaders at Covington & Burling LLP and Hogan Lovells also said their firms are looking to adopt more flexible work arrangements.

"I think we cannot go back to where we were, especially given how successful working from home has been," said Covington & Burling executive director John Waters, who oversees the firm's administrative operations. "But we've decided that we're not going to take a stance on this right now. We're gonna wait to see the full impact of COVID before we make any policy changes right now."

Echoing Waters, David Crew, who serves as head of corporate real estate at Hogan Lovells, said his firm has moved from a "formal" telework policy to an "informal" one, giving employees the freedom to work from home more frequently. Going forward, he said, Hogan Lovells will continue to take incremental steps toward more flexible work arrangements.

"At the end of the day, we need to make sure that our attorneys are fully utilized and as profitable as possible," Crew said. "We'll need to come to an approach that works for them."

Most lawyers and law firm staff have enjoyed working from home and would like to continue doing so in some capacity even when offices are fully reopened following the coronavirus pandemic, several surveys found.

According to one such survey sent to 65,000 of Savills' clients in late April, legal professionals want to work from home more often than they were before the pandemic. Prior to the lockdown, about half of legal professionals said they preferred to work from home one to two days a month; now, up to 40% want to work remotely at least two days a week, the survey found. 

In another survey released July 14 by commercial real estate group Cushman & Wakefield that includes responses from 608 lawyers at firms of all sizes, 90% of respondents said they expect more than a tenth of their attorneys will telework on a regular basis.

The increase in working from home is also leading firms to evaluate their real estate footprints. The Cushman survey showed that one-third of respondents said they expect their law firms to reduce office space by more than 20%.

Jim Lehman, managing partner at Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough LLP, told Law360 that he is looking to downsize the firm's real estate footprint once its leases are up.

"[COVID-19] has shown us all the importance of being flexible and having that ability, in case there's any kind of emergency, whether it's a weather emergency or whether a health emergency," Lehman told Law360. "I also think that there is an environmental change where people are more open to meeting virtually and being able to continue to work from wherever that is."

Several other firms have already taken steps to reduce their overhead by downsizing physical office space.

In mid-July, legal giant Dentons announced that it will close two of its U.K. offices as part of a broader shift toward telework and to reduce its real estate holdings. And in May, Australia-based Slater and Gordon said it will close its London offices once its lease is up in September, transitioning all 200 of the firm's employees there to telework.

However, the trend toward working from home doesn't mean in-person communication will be fully replaced. Slater and Gordon said it hopes to find a smaller office space to host in-person meetings, and Lehman stressed the need for an office environment where people can learn from and collaborate with each other.

"But I do think that [remote work] is a step in evolution," Lehman said. "Just like, you know, laptops were a step in evolution 20 years ago."

--Additional reporting by Aebra Coe and Hannah Albarazi. Editing by Alanna Weissman.

Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the location of Husch Blackwell's headquarters. The error has been corrected.

For a reprint of this article, please contact reprints@law360.com.

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