Right now a lot of people are probably working from home. This may be because their law firm, tech company or inhouse legal team has decided on home-working as a new COVID-19 era policy, or perhaps your business is trying to battle on regardless, but you’ve been able to opt-out and stay home. You may even be at a firm where people have tested positive for the virus and everyone has been sent home as a precaution regardless of what people want.
Whichever the scenario, there is one fundamental question: can the legal sector work from home and still function? Do we need to be in an office? In fact, did we ever really need to be in an office? Or has that just been an age old, lazy assumption created in part by many people’s unconscious bias towards extroversion and a need for in-person group belonging?
Artificial Lawyer would really like to hear your stories about home-working and how you’re coping with it, especially given we could be looking at three months or more of the need to socially distance ourselves and stay at home. In fact, after all of this is over, who knows, many of us may realise we prefer working from home and we don’t need offices (or such large offices) after all?
Here’s some thoughts from Artificial Lawyer’s own home-working sofa:
- The law depends on professional secrecy and data security is paramount. Yet, many lawyers and professional support staff already work from home a day or so a week. Firms and corporates have found safe ways to allow people to work remotely. All that is happening now is that the entire office is going remote in some cases.
- The main technical challenge here is if something goes wrong and the IT team needs to come in to fix things at HQ. Hopefully that will not be too frequent, but commuting in and going into the office occasionally cannot be avoided in such circumstances for some.
- Home-working also faces a challenge if your data, structured and unstructured (i.e. text) isn’t already in a digital format. Luckily for many commercial law firms it will be. But, you don’t want your lawyers with boxes of super-sensitive client documents sitting in the kitchen at home for weeks and weeks.
- And this leads to matters such as your DMS. It’s all very well working from home if you can access the materials you need. But, a weak DMS will leave your home-working experience in a real mess. However, in some cases getting your KM and client docs in order right now just won’t be possible. There won’t be sufficient time before everyone is sent home.
- Then we get to the more human things. Personally, I prefer to manage myself. Put me in a room with a computer and wifi, with access to tea bags and a kettle, and I’m all set for a very long time. But, not everyone likes to manage themselves. Not everyone likes to be 100% autonomous. Law firms and corporates will no doubt try to keep their governance structures and reporting lines going, but this can get strained when everyone is at home. Billing time will no doubt become especially tricky as well.
- Working from home is great when home is a peaceful place. Add in other people, such as one’s family, and it can be a different story. Reviewing a 200-page, super complex contract for a client, while little Josh and Martha have decided to throw their lunch all over each other and over your laptop, can be a challenge. Given that schools are closed in many countries, and soon will be in the UK, this is going to be a real challenge. And, for health reasons younger family members can’t automatically be looked after by their grandparents.
- On a broad psychological level, can organisations keep functioning when no-one meets face to face? Again, this will depend on the people. More introverted staff members likely will embrace the opportunity not to sit huddled together in a cramped office and to have the chance to work without what feels like excessive human interaction. Extroverts may in turn feel a bit lost without face to face feedback and interaction, and yearn for the chance to be in their open plan office. (Note: it’s often said that lawyers tend to be introverts, if that’s true, then perhaps home-working will not be too onerous psychologically.)
- Also, can an organisation make money without ever meeting people? Lawyers don’t need to meet their clients. It can all be done remotely, from client engagement to the final bill. But, again, some people just want to see you. But, in return, what if you’d rather not meet anyone other than close family for the next three months? It’s tricky, and remote may win the day whatever one’s preferences.
- To conclude, sitting here on my sofa, which I’ve worked from for several years, it seems strange to want to be in an office. But, many people do and find it the natural way to do business. What we are facing now is a systemic challenge to that and it seems likely that by the end of the month many law firms, tech companies and inhouse legal teams will be working from home whether they feel good about it or not.
As mentioned, Artificial Lawyer would like to hear your stories about working from home, the pros and cons, the challenges, the opportunities, and perhaps the new ways of looking at organisational structure as a whole.
And, once again: stay safe, everyone.