With the COVID-19 pandemic rendering offices empty (for the large part), and triggering new remote working policies and protocols, the future of the traditional office remains uncertain. And this has come at a time when virtual law firms – such as Rimon Law, which recently opened an office in Shenzhen – grow in prominence. However, some in the industry feel that working virtually may not be for everyone just yet.
ALB: Are we likely to see more law firms embracing a virtual model in the future? Why or why not?
MICHAEL MORADZADEH, CEO, Rimon Law
Virtual law ﬁrms are likely to witness exponential growth in the future, though they will take a number of forms. Some will operate like Uber or Upwork with freelance attorneys, and others will be on the Rocket Lawyer model: Technology platforms with a few lawyers serving as back-up. There will also be loose afﬁliations of lawyers working under one platform. At the same time, there will be high-end modern law ﬁrms like Rimon where elite lawyers work closely together, employing video conferencing and other technologies to enable a much smaller real estate than traditional ﬁrms. These ﬁrms feature remote work but include access to quality ofﬁces and resources. Associate and staff billing will play a limited role, as the ﬁrms meet clients’ expectations that they should only pay for top-level work. Eventually, elite law ﬁrms will transition to this model. Already, big ﬁrm partners are reporting higher productivity working from home, and most surveys show that the attorneys prefer it that way. Now that attorneys have had a taste of real ﬂexibility, I don’t think they will go back. We have already seen this, as interest in our ﬁrm has exploded since March. So far, in 2020 alone, we have added 27 new partners, most of whom were AmLaw 100 Partners looking for a more modern platform.
TONY WILLIAMS, principal, Jomati Consultants
We have already seen the creation of a number of virtual law ﬁrms and I do expect the numbers to rise. This is for a few reasons. First, as a result of the pandemic lawyers have been forced to work from home often for the ﬁrst time in their careers. They have found that they can be very effective, the technology works and avoiding long commutes or wasted time in ofﬁce meetings can result in enhanced efﬁciency. Second, an increasing number of lawyers are prepared to swap the certainty of a monthly paycheque for the ﬂexibility of working when necessary and having control over their lives. Third, without the cost base of a traditional law ﬁrm they can charge their clients less but still make the same or more income than before. Finally, some clients are very happy with this as they get the attention of lawyers they know at a lower price and with less potential conﬂict issues.
But this is not for everyone. First, we are generally sociable animals and beneﬁt from interaction with colleagues, discussing problems and sharing experiences. Second, many will need the certainty of a regular income to pay rent and so on and are not at a stage of life when they are prepared to take risks. Third, law is still largely an apprenticeship model where younger lawyers learn by seeing how more experienced lawyers operate. Finally, effective teamwork and developing relationships rely on a level of personal contact. I appreciate that many but not all of these issues can be addressed by embracing social media, virtual coffee breaks and so on. So, although we will probably see a greater degree of innovation and ﬂexibility as to the way in which law ﬁrms operate, I don’t think that traditional law ﬁrms will be replaced by their virtual counterparts in the short term.
ALASTAIR MORDAUNT, Asia co-head, antitrust, competition and trade, Freshfields
When we were coming out of the ﬁrst wave of COVID-19 several months ago, we were emerging from a prolonged period of having to discharge our roles and responsibilities despite not being in the ofﬁce. We felt that learnings and beneﬁts had emerged from this period, and we wanted to continue to leverage these once things started to return to normal. This was our aim when we revised our agile working policy, which we had launched as a pilot.
Previously under our agile working policy, there was a cap on how much time you could work away from the ofﬁce and people needed to give a reason for doing so and seek permission from their line manager. We decided to remove those conditions.
But this change in our approach was not forced upon us by COVID-19. We were more focused on the kind of workplace we wanted to be in the future, after the pandemic is gone. We do have a small group of people in the ofﬁce to whom that pilot doesn’t apply, but we certainly haven’t said that they can never work from any location other than the ofﬁce. They just need to have a conversation with their line manager and team ﬁrst, to ensure that they will still be able to support their colleagues appropriately.
There are a number of considerations for law ﬁrms to bear in mind when encouraging agile working, and I think these would apply to a digital law ﬁrm as well. There are needs like training, mentoring and supervision that traditionally have been conducted in person. I don’t think working remotely makes those things impossible, but we certainly need to work hard to ensure that they can be delivered to the same standard and with the same effectiveness.
Another consideration is the potential negative perception of working from home. This may have existed in the past, and so it’s important to drive home the message that things have changed. I ﬁnd it quite hard to conceive of a fully virtual law ﬁrm, and that’s certainly not the model we’ve adopted today. But if virtual simply means some colleagues not being in the ofﬁce some of the time, then we meet the deﬁnition every day of the week because at any one time, there will be a subset of staff who are not working in the ofﬁce.
One thing you lose from not being in the ofﬁce is that human interaction. Certainly, our efforts in the ﬁeld of mental health have intensiﬁed over the past few months, recognising the potentially negative impact COVID has had on people’s sense of community and wellbeing.
This is something, when we come out of COVID, that will remain a focus – being able to check in with people at a human level is such a fundamentally important part of having a happy, successful team, and all the more so in a virtual environment.
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