The New Legal Office: Digital and Hybrid

Legal services are often characterized as being slow to change when it comes to digitalization and modern work practices. It is a sector that typically holds tradition, discretion and seniority in high regard, and many law firms tend to stick to what works instead of adopting new processes. Altman Weil, a management consulting service provider for legal organizations, reports that partners in 70.3% of law firms were still resisting change in 2020. But as we saw in many facets of business and life, the pandemic proved to be the ultimate catalyst.

Overnight, law firms had to vacate their stylish offices, and contend with working from home. “This just accelerated the inevitable,” says the Chief Administrative Officer of an AmLaw 100 firm whose company had to adopt a 100% work-from-home set up overnight.

Two years into the pandemic, legal firms are settling in. As the 2022 State of the Legal Market report by Thomson Reuters says: “​​hybrid working arrangements are here to stay,” with 86% of lawyers now wanting to work remotely — double the number from pre-pandemic.

As the world reopens, legal firms are facing a new set of challenges as they navigate how to not just survive but thrive on a new playing field.

Slow acceptance of new processes and technologies

While adopting new technology may help law firms be more efficient, it remains challenging for some to learn and adapt. For some senior legal workers, working with paper, printing case documents, and speaking with peers in person is the norm.

An academic journal article based on interviews with UK-based legal firms in 2020 also reveals that innovation in law firms is restricted due to fears about data security and handling. As law firms hold confidential client information, a data breach can result in significant reputational damage.

But the same journal article argues that there is hope for a new way of working in legal offices. “The challenges to transformation [in law firms] are largely social in nature as highlighted by established norms, traditions and culture,” it says. “These obstacles, while difficult, are not impossible to overcome.”

As of 2022, there is considerable progress on that front. The Thomson Reuters 2022 report says there is now a “broadened acceptance” of the important role technology plays in the effective delivery of legal services.

Hybrid work as culture shock

A hybrid arrangement can come as a major culture shock, so managers and leaders must find ways for employees to connect and build camaraderie. Hanson Bridgett, a mid-sized full-service law firm based in San Francisco, California, says prioritizing company culture is one of the most important lessons for firms optimizing their ways of working.

Legal firms may also face potential equity issues with professionals and support staff. While some lawyers can adopt a hybrid work setup, other members of an organization may have to be asked to report back to offices, which may lead to feelings of resentment. Some firms are testing new ways of working, such as offering to work from home permanently, but at a price!

How improving workplace flexibility and employee experience (EX) can help

Communication, workplace flexibility, company culture, and overall employee experience (EX) play important roles in hybrid setups for legal services.

Global data in the LiveTiles Global Employee Experience Survey in 2021 reveals that only 31% of individuals who provide professional, scientific and technical services (including advertising, marketing, and legal services) feel like they “belong” in their workplace, while only 26% feel recognized enough by peers and their managers.

According to The American Lawyer’s 2021 Midlevel Associates Survey, 60% of 3,700 associates said they would consider leaving their firm for a better work-life balance. But only 27% would leave their current law firm for higher compensation.

To prevent feelings of resentment while implementing a hybrid work setup, Thomson Reuters suggests that firms deliver frequent and empathetic communications tailored around the realization that different individuals will be dealing with return-to-work issues in different ways.

Having an effective digital employee experience platform may help in improving communications, while also ensuring workers remain flexible and connected to their colleagues. Through a personalized digital EX platform, every member of an organization can stay informed, engaged, and productive. A good EX platform can be the digital equivalent of the office space, where teams can share ideas, collaborate, and provide instant feedback. It can also help the organization understand its people better, allowing managers to get first-hand information on productivity, best practices, and employees’ pain points.

UK-based financial firm Legal & General is a legal and financial organization that proves how an effective EX platform can help. A market leader in pensions, life insurance, and retirement income, the firm helps more than 9.5 million people handle their finances.

Their business function underscored the need to deploy a new intranet when the pandemic began, as its legacy intranet was neither efficient nor optimized enough for the task. They worked with LiveTiles to develop a bespoke employee experience platform called “The Hub” that allows employees to process policy information and intuitively search for company content — securely and effectively.

The app allows employees to work anytime and anywhere, plus it lets them connect with peers during times of need. The company also uses the platform to release daily announcements from management to their respective teams.

Having all functions in a single, secure platform with intuitive information architecture greatly aided the company’s quick transition to a digital workplace. “The transition that we’ve made has been phenomenal and it feels to me that we won’t go back to the way we were,” says Heather Andrews, Employee Experience Director at Legal & General.

The need to embrace change and prioritize EX

As the American Bar Association boldly proclaims: culture is the next big hurdle for law firms. As legal workers get used to working remotely, building a culture that mimics the one firms had pre-pandemic will be a challenge. But as the association says: thoughtful planning, and adoption of relevant digital tools can help.

What’s most important for legal organizations now is to embrace change, explore new digital tools, and adopt transformative changes to ensure their top talents have the best employee experience.

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