When law firm offices reopen, will it be back to work as before? How much will have changed through experience of remote working? The Journal revisited firms we quizzed as lockdown began

Solicitors’ offices south of the border are opening up; on present indications Scotland has a few weeks to wait. By then, it will be almost six months since lockdown took effect. Will “going back” mean just that, or has the working day changed for good?

Back in April, soon after lockdown, the Journal surveyed a spread of firms to find out how their teams were adjusting to remote working. This month we followed up to find out how they now view the pros and cons, and the impact on future practice.

Driven change

“The main positive has been that it has forced innovation in terms of new practice and procedures”, reports Greg Whyte, managing partner of Jones Whyte.

“We can now operate with only 2% of the overall team physically present (and this number is decreasing as we adapt further). The negative has been the absence of the social side, both in and out of work time.”

Shepherd & Wedderburn’s Andrew Blain reflects others in paying tribute to technical support. “Thanks to the tremendous work of our IT team and the dedication of our lawyers and support staff, we have not seen any disruption to client services while working remotely.” Secure videoconferencing technology for remote meetings with clients, contacts and colleagues has been extended to virtual social events for keeping in touch.

“There have been many positives,” Brodies’ Nick Scott affirms. “Perhaps, most importantly, how quickly and seamlessly our colleagues engaged remote working. It has also accelerated the move towards more digital practices. One tangible measure is the reduction in printing, which has decreased tenfold in the last three months.”

Wellbeing, often cited as a concern in this context, has he believes seen benefits, “with many colleagues taking advantage of the time they are getting back from their daily commute and using that for exercise and fitness”.

Jennifer Young, chairman of Ledingham Chalmers, believes remote working “has largely worked well, with “a strong community spirit about embracing this change”, but has had its challenges, such as juggling work and family commitments.

“In some ways, remote working has brought us closer together across the firm. While folks have missed the opportunity to turn to a colleague during the day to bounce ideas off them, or we’ve had to think again about how best to mentor team members online, there’s something more intimate about being ‘invited’ into someone’s home over videoconference.”

Overall, output does not appear to have suffered. “If anything, we are more productive from home,” claims Simon Allison, employment partner at Blackadders. “Except for occasional trips to the office for essential scanning, there isn’t anything that cannot be done from home, thanks to technology. It has been refreshing to see how adaptable our colleagues have been throughout this situation.”

That is reflected by Marianne McJannett, associate at TC Young, who has been able to carry out her work “in the same way as I did in the office, meeting deadlines and client needs as required. I have not missed the morning commute and fighting for a coveted seat on the train into Glasgow, although I do miss having 45 minutes each day to sit and read and set myself up for the day, or switch off at the end of the day”.

Likewise, Paula Skinner, partner at Harper Macleod, says: “Before all this I would always have thought that in our line of work, when you are involved in deals, you would need to be in the office. However, we have proven that remote working can be done effectively. Many of our clients are entrepreneurs and they’ve simply been getting on with it, as are we.”

A need for contact

But people do miss the casual contact with colleagues, especially for work matters.

“Not having people right beside me to bounce around ideas, or even listen, has been difficult,” McJannett acknowledges. “While we have daily phone calls with each other, and weekly team meetings via Zoom – a lifeline and a great way of keeping in touch, it’s not the same as a quick chat over a cuppa in the morning.”

She further admits: “The biggest negative for me has not been remote working; it has been working at home in a pandemic. This has involved general worry about the global situation, as well as personal anxieties about family and friends’ health, while also juggling being a full time employee and stay-at-home mum to a very active toddler. It has certainly been a challenge.”

Skinner comments: “It is working apart, rather than ‘working from home’, which is the issue you need to monitor constantly. We’ve learned that having everyone working from home means you need to be more organised than ever, even in terms of simple things such as filing because you can’t quickly ask one another where something is. It’s a guaranteed way to leak time so you really have to be disciplined.”

She too misses “the small chats”: “When you are beside someone all day you can get a better idea of what is really going on with them, though I think the fact that we have all recognised this shows we are thinking about one another’s wellbeing, and that’s a good thing.

“For my part, I feel I can be more productive in the office, but that’s partly because it is more efficient for me as a senior person to have a quick chat with a younger colleague, mentor them and pass on pieces of work. Those small, immediate interactions are definitely harder to replicate.”

Young observes: “Internal communications have become even more important. We took the view we couldn’t communicate too much.” These have included weekly team updates, live virtual Q&A sessions, and surveys about how people want to be updated, and what they would like to see happen when they return to the office.

She points out the particular challenges for new people joining, for whom strong internal communication has been particularly important.

Maree Allison at the Scottish Social Services Council agrees. “Induction and training of new staff is more challenging. We are conscious that for some staff it has been an isolating and difficult time.”

Whyte, too, stresses the importance of the “informal conversation or chance encounter” for ongoing learning. Another risk he sees from extended homeworking is the dissipation of the trust and relationships built up between team members working together. “As time passes, cracks naturally appear and the need to re-engage in a traditional setting (both professionally and socially) becomes apparent.”

Flexible future?

Has the experience led to a change of thinking about how much homeworking, and flexible hours to allow?

Allison replies that while the SSSC already had a very supportive approach to flexible hours, “We are developing an approach which will be much more supportive of the principle that work is an activity, not a place. Most staff are indicating that in future they would like to work a few days at home and a few days in the office.”

“Unsurprisingly, most colleagues are expressing an interest in a mix of home and office working,” Blain reports. “We will certainly be guided by our colleagues’ preferences and the needs of clients, who, almost without exception, have also adapted rapidly to homeworking.”

For Whyte, “The pandemic has strengthened our view that homeworking is something to be embraced rather than feared.

“Flexibility is what professionals, especially millennials, demand and expect nowadays. It is not, as is sometimes said, that millennials are entitled: far from it. Rather, millennials have choices and opportunities. Enabling these enhances rather than stifles productivity and creativity.”

Scott emphasises allowing choice, given there are those who do prefer to work from the office; Young agrees that her firm now has “lots of confidence in, and a much clearer picture of”, how well both homeworking and flexible hours can work.

McJannett “would question any employer whose employees stepped up to the plate and continued to work from home to support a business during lockdown, who then denies them the option of remote working in future”.

TC Young has been “incredibly supportive” of her circumstances, and “as long as the work is getting done, to the same standard and in line with client expectations, then allowing people the option of flexible working is key to adapting to the changing landscape of the workplace”.

Skinner responds: “From my discussions it’s clear that everyone in the team at least wants to get back to the office to some degree, though in general I think people feel they have been able to achieve a good work/life balance.”

Blackadders’ Allison begins with team goals and timescales. “It doesn’t matter whether we choose to do something outwith working hours or between 9am and 5pm. It is about assisting them accomplish these goals. Leaders need to be clear about how their team fit into the bigger picture. You cannot over-communicate when you’re working with a remote team.”

He sounds a note of caution about “psychological safety”, which is “a real concern for our firm. Our partners have taken it in turns to email all staff on a monthly basis with an update from each unit” – covering not only firm business, but voluntary work undertaken by staff. “We even had one update featuring a trainee’s TikTok dance routine. Our managing partner also conducted a live webinar where staff could sign in anonymously and type their questions. They could ask him anything (and they did).”

Anne Campbell of Lennox Forensic Accountants describes homeworking as “the ultimate in business interruption insurance”; the need now is “to make sure that our business structure and operating procedures are redesigned, then built up from that starting point”.

As regards hours, her firm sets certain parameters. “We quickly realised it was essential for us to keep to a core period where we knew the whole team would be working and available. These core hours of 9.30 to 2 mean there is a good chunk of the day when we know we can interact freely with each other and schedule calls and catchups with the team and with clients and others. Outside these hours, everyone was free to make up their hours at whatever times suited them, subject only to the requirement that, once stabilised, these became relatively fixed so that we all became familiar with each other’s work patterns.

“Because we all have different commitments and also times of day when we are at our most productive, between us we are working from 6am until 10pm, and productivity is higher than ever.”

Shape of the office

What does it all mean for office needs? Here Lennox Forensic has made the most radical change.

“In our new world of work, maintaining an office space 24/7 just doesn’t make sense,” Campbell declares. “We have taken the decision to give up our office and have taken a shared space which we use as a team hub, where we can get together for in-person meetings once or twice a week, and which also acts as our physical presence and a space where we can meet clients and contacts.

“We have set up a social enterprise to manage the space when we are not using it and are letting it out on a non-profit basis to support local freelancers and small businesses who need ad hoc space but cannot afford to take on premises at this time... it is a privilege to be able to help in this way.”

Our other respondents may be viewing their office space differently, but still regard it as integral.

“In planning Brodies’ new office in Edinburgh [a move scheduled for next year], we had already challenged ourselves to think differently about what the office is, and how clients and colleagues will want to use it,” Scott explains. “Having a physical presence is still very important, arguably more so, as changes brought about by the pandemic will likely see more virtual hearings, for example, and so to be able to provide the space and the technology for our clients in that respect, is fundamental.”

Similarly Whyte says: “We have just completed the purchase of a new head office in central Glasgow. I believe it is important to have a base where everyone can congregate and meet clients. I suspect it will operate more as a hub than as a place to be every day.”

From an in-house perspective Maree Allison also predicts office space – shared with two other public bodies – being geared more towards meetings and training, with most staff working partly from home.

Blain regards it as too early to assess the impact of the last few months on future requirements, “but the experiences are likely to impact how businesses use office space in future”.

Young is confident Ledingham Chalmers will still need its five offices across the country. “They’re important to our staff and our clients. But lockdown will have an impact on how we use them in the future and what technology we’ll need.”

She expects a rise in demand for video meetings, and with fewer people present, more demand for areas for team activities. “That doesn’t necessarily mean fewer desks, but will make us think more about how we use our existing space. It could well mean we need less storage space for colleagues who, until lockdown, weren’t confident about going paperless!”

Meeting client needs

As for dealings with clients and others, Young expects these to continue online longer term. “There’s a real discipline around meetings, and meeting structure, when they take place virtually. It’s really easy too to share documents during these sessions and update them in real time.”

McJannett takes a similar view. Presenting Zoom webinars has been “fantastic and a great way of updating clients and contacts throughout the country, without the travel time and expense”. Attending client management committee meetings virtually has also worked well: “an effective way for clients to keep costs down while taking appropriate legal advice on difficult decisions”. And CPD “has been really nice to do from the comfort
of my desk”.

Whyte plans to respond to demand: “We will keep in place all new methods of communication and interaction, while recognising that face time is still king for a great many clients, lawyers and transactions.”

Blackadders’ Allison, though, has found client video calls “quite challenging, since it is normally straight down to business – there is little chatter about niceties or personal matters, and lawyers have to work hard to spot their clients’ real emotions during a Zoom call”.

From the SSSC, his wife reports: “As a public body we work closely with Government and other public bodies. That engagement has worked very well remotely and we expect that will become the norm.”

A beneficial side effect, Scott relates, has been greater use of electronic documentation and e-signing. “We believe this is progress towards legal systems and processes that are more fit for the future, and would encourage their greater use as restrictions ease.”

Campbell remarks: “It turns out that new ways of working are fine after all – and in most cases an improvement. Remote client identity verification is a must now, and certainly appreciated by clients. And the enforced rollout of all our tech-forward solutions that were previously only used for those clients we thought suited to these approaches has been a revelation.”

She concludes: “It feels like five or 10 years’ worth of change has happened in four months – and it turns out that is a good thing!”

Remote hearings: how far?

We took the chance to ask about our respondents' experience with remote court and tribunal hearings, and whether they think these might become the norm.

Jennifer Young reports a general view in her firm that they have been effective and efficient, and an expectation such digital use will increase. However, “There is a high level of frustration that the Scottish court infrastructure seems to lag behind that in other jurisdictions, and England in particular.”

Nick Scott responds: “We believe this is a positive step forward for the Scottish courts, and a move towards creating a system that... delivers a number of benefits for our clients, particularly in efficiency and cost.”

Greg Whyte states: “From a personal perspective I think this is a long overdue positive move. Hopefully, remote hearings will be a bigger part of what we do”; and (concerning Fitness to Practise Panel hearings) Maree Allison adds: “Feedback has been very positive. For us, they will be the norm when appropriate.”

Marianne McJannett found tribunal preliminary hearings “relatively easy” to carry out this way: “and the employment judge was very understanding when my toddler came into the room asking for Fireman Sam to be put back on the television!” But they took longer than usual, two running well over an hour instead of normally 20-30 minutes.

She adds: “To conduct final hearings relying on witness evidence and numerous documents could be difficult, and ultimately I think would take up far more tribunal time than would be required for in-person hearings.”

Simon Allison's team hopes remote hearings, while good for straightforward case management, do not become the norm. “Just like with meeting clients over Zoom, it is very difficult to gauge emotions, which makes it difficult to ensure that justice is done.”

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