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Let’s be honest: if a select group of law firms haven’t been persuaded about the benefits of working from home by now, they’re just not going to be.
Higher levels of productivity; fewer commutes; less contact with the COVID plague – all these advantages have entered one ear of such holdouts and left the other without passing ‘Go’ or collecting £200.
Given that one more opinion piece about productivity studies and employee surveys is unlikely to shake this Terminator-like commitment to the daily commute, I’m not going to produce one. Instead, I’d like to propose that the future of displaced working in the legal sector is not a continued reliance on working from home, but a slightly more developed iteration: working from anywhere. And I do mean anywhere – from a mountainside monastery to an Italian villa.
At first glance, this might seem counterintuitive. Surely, if there’s still a decent number of employers in the law industry who prefer the impression of on-site activity to remote working, there’s no way they’d accept working from anywhere? On closer inspection, however, such nay-sayers might be intrigued by this idea – especially since ‘anywhere’ includes the office itself.
The advantages of ‘anywhere’
One of the big problems with working from home, both as a policy and as a phrase, is its limited set of implications.
That is: if you’re told to work from home, then you’re implicitly encouraged not to work anywhere else. In that sense, working from home can feel just as limiting as working in an office. After all, if a lawyer feels chained to their desk, it’s the chain that bothers them – not the décor.
Working from anywhere, by contrast, changes the field entirely. By officially implementing a work from anywhere policy, there’s no need for any residual feelings of guilt or anxiety that might otherwise come hand-in-hand with working in, say, a coffee shop or other non-traditional environment.
It’s not just a question of preference, but practicality. Suppose you’re visiting your parents for a long weekend, or you managed to get hold of cheaper-but-earlier flights for your upcoming holiday. Under a work from anywhere system, you can get your work done from your childhood bedroom or your swanky Riviera hotel as needs be.
Crucially – especially for the hesitant holdouts who remain suspicious of non-office work – working from anywhere can also mean working in an office for those team members who prefer the work-life balance of a more traditional backdrop for their working life.
Dealing with the practicalities
Of course, collaboration (while we’re on the subject) is one of the sticking points cited by nay-sayers as a reason to remain solely in the office. How, aside from the myriad communication devices we’re surrounded by at all times, will lawyers manage to collaborate, engage, and train under a work-from-anywhere system?
In all seriousness, it is important to have rules and practices in place for ensuring that everyone is well-supported. While many legal firms were improvising during the pandemic, the future of remote work will require a more thought-through and systematic approach.
It’s not just new hires that need training, but existing partners and senior lawyers – many of whom have trusted themselves to work from anywhere for years, but who can often struggle to extend that trust to their teams. This, as Harvard Business Review and other publications have noted, requires a new perspective on delegation, empowerment, and autonomy – while still encouraging accountability from employees more broadly.
Resisting remote working discourages talent
With law having traditionally been treated by many of its longstanding incumbents as a sector for which remote working is not a viable option, it is hard to ignore that this is likely to have dissuaded a wealth of talented individuals from pursuing a career as a lawyer.
You only have to consider the number of people with childcare responsibilities or personal health issues who may have dreamt of getting a job at a top law firm but have ultimately decided that they are unable to commit to mandated office working due to their individual circumstances.
If only the industry’s many WFH cynics had recognised that work can, in the vast majority of cases, be carried out just as (or even more) effectively outside of the office as within it, the sector could well have attracted many a gifted legal brain who has been left to fall by the roadside instead.
By changing their antiquated approach towards remote working, and giving lawyers the freedom to choose where they work from, firms could well find themselves inundated with CVs from exceptional individuals who have been drawn to the flexibility and opportunities that a career as a lawyer can offer them.
More than a number
Ultimately, working from anywhere is a significant step towards a more human (and humane) approach to working in law. It’s easy for any lawyer to feel like a cog in a machine, and that’s another reason not to immediately invoke statistics in favour of remote working. It’s not just about the numbers.
Something as simple as a medical appointment, a child’s graduation, or a sick pet can become such an uncompassionate issue for the full-time office worker who has no option but to squander precious annual leave on an important moment – but this kind of problem disappears under a flexible work-from-anywhere regime.
After all, if you’re allowed to clock in from a Parisian hotel or a Peruvian retreat, it becomes much less shocking to suggest that you’re equally allowed to take liberties with the clock itself, reshuffling your hours to accommodate family milestones or deal with life’s crises as they emerge.
Some detractors will say that working from home is isolating – but we firmly believe that, by embracing a ‘work from anywhere’ philosophy, law firms can pave the way towards a more connected and more human experience, ensuring that work fits around life – not the other way around.
About the author: Alex Dick is Managing Director of Alexander Lyons Solutions.