October 2020 Forum
Michael Moradzadeh, Tony Williams, Alastair Mordaunt

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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