During the COVID-19 pandemic, most law firms had to swiftly and (mostly) successfully pivot to an all-virtual environment for their lawyers, business partners, and support staff. In many cases, this was an ideal move for firms, as it helped them reduce fixed costs and create a more flexible work environment. For this reason, elements of this “pandemic workstyle” are sure to remain as restrictions lift and offices re-open.  

But law isn’t meant to be a fully remote practice, and many leaders are now trying to figure out how to best build a hybrid, or flexible, work environment that supports their entire team and meets their most pressing professional and cultural needs.  

And they are left with many questions in the process, like What should a flexible office look like? How can company culture be effectively maintained in a hybrid environment? How can effective processes and best practices be upheld remotely?  

Here’s everything you need to know about getting it right, and how the right technology can help.

How the Modern Law Office Has Changed

Though the pandemic was certainly a catalyst for all-remote work, many law offices decided to explore remote work options well before COVID began. Hanson Bridgett – a full-service, midsize law firm in California – planned a 33% reduction in office space about 14 months before the pandemic to reduce sky-high real estate costs and free up that money to attract top talent. Their model? To offer employees three options: shared office space with dedicated workspaces, true hybrid work, and a fully work-from-home with desk hoteling options.  

Though the plan was initially met with significant anxiety (no surprise in one of the world’s most risk-averse sectors), they found that it ultimately worked, and that productivity rose with more flexible options.  

These results have continued to replicate themselves throughout the pandemic. In fact, many law firms found that remote work has led to:  

  • Improved employee health, as cutting down on commute time and lowering the risk of respiratory infection led to increased well-being and a better work-life balance.
  • Increased revenue. In one survey, 60% of respondents noted that increased productivity led to increased revenue in both 2020 and 2021.
  • A larger talent pool, as associates who live farther away can work at a firm without committing to a long commute.
  • Lower expenses as firms cut down on significant real estate footprints and employees slash costs associated with wardrobes, meals, and commuting.

The Current Landscape

As a result, as offices continue to open and possibilities increase, most firms plan to keep remote work opportunities open at least 20-50% of the time. In fact, in one Legal Industry Report, 53% of respondents indicated that they would let their staff continue to work remotely full-time, and 70% asserted that they would allow part-time remote, or hybrid, work.  

And employees now expect nothing less. Indeed, many legal candidates indicate that work-life balance is their number one priority when choosing a firm, and they see flexible working options as a non-negotiable part of keeping that balance. What’s more, with a shortage of qualified candidates in the industry, many are looking for work elsewhere if their current firm does not meet their expectations.  

This is, in many ways, forcing firms to follow through with the model that may ultimately work best: the flexible work environment. But it will take significant work – and changes in how many law offices run and operate – to get this right.

How to Build a Successful Flexible Work Environment

Invest in the Right Tech Tools  

For Hanson Bridgett to support remote work, they had to invest in IT, ditching desktops in favor of laptops, opting for more robust VPNs, establishing new vendor relationships that supported working from home, and implementing new software that facilitated hoteling.  

In short, they had to totally digitize and move to the cloud.  

Any law firm hoping to successfully transition to a hybrid model must do the same, investing in flexible long-term solutions and cloud-based infrastructures that allow for agile, dynamic work environments. To get this right, it’s important to consider things like:  

  • Cybersecurity, and how to improve cybersecurity notifications and audit capabilities to maximize data safety.
  • Equipment, and making sure that you have a strong Wi-Fi signal and the right equipment to facilitate videoconferencing and hybrid meetings.
  • Remote access to case information, which will both facilitate remote work and meet data privacy regulations.
  • Space scheduling and desk hoteling software, as the right tools will allow your team to easily book desk spaces, integrate video and scheduling technology, find the right meeting rooms, coordinate with team members, and more.

If your current pandemic-era digitalization efforts don’t consider these elements, then it’s likely time to rethink and rework.

Prioritize Culture

Employees will always feel some shock when there’s a drastic change to their working environment. Today, many employees continue to experience angst surrounding:  

  • Not having their own desk  
  • Feeling left out at home, or feeling concerned that their careers will suffer  
  • Remote employees not pulling their weight  
  • Connecting with colleagues in a remote or hybrid environment
  • Feeling concerned that they will miss out on important information that’s shared in the office

To overcome these concerns, firms must address them head-on – and leaders must work to communicate well and purposefully shape a strong company culture. This can be accomplished through things like:  

  • Regular town hall meetings
  • Clear and transparent top-down communication, which can include regular video conferencing schedules and “camera-on” video policies
  • Regular off-site meetings to facilitate in-person interaction
  • Allowing employees to meet up as “pods,” or work groups that arrange to be at the office at the same time to effectively collaborate and connect
  • Creating clear objectives that help benchmark progress and eliminate suspicions that at-home employees are not pulling their weight
  • Investment in high-quality videoconferencing tools, like webcams and headsets

Maximize Collaboration and Knowledge Management  

Employees feel most comfortable and on board with change when they feel that they are, “in the loop,” and part of the decision-making process. It’s important, then, that law firms remain transparent and collaborative about hybrid work plans, taking pains to work out the details, communicate effectively, and achieve alignment before they implement any changes.  

In the same vein, firms must work to keep employees and trainees in the loop by developing strong knowledge management systems. That’s the only way that expertise can be shared, and information disseminated in a partially remote environment.  

Continuously Measure Success  

Lastly, it’s important that organizations continuously measure their progress to determine if their remote efforts are a success. To this end, you can track metrics like:  

  • Employee turnover, measured six months or a year after everyone is settled into their “new normal”
  • Productivity measured during billable hours
  • Ability to hire and retain top talent
  • Money saved on big-ticket items like rent or facility maintenance

Final Thoughts  

For many law firms, a hybrid model is truly the future of work, providing the flexibility, real estate savings, and agility that many organizations need to survive and thrive in today’s new normal.  

For more information on the latest trends and what to expect in 2022 and beyond, check out our whitepaper, “Law Firm Workplace Management Trends and Best Practices.”  

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