We are just starting to reopen since the pandemic began. Yet, we all know that it will not be as simple as going back to “business as usual.” The coronavirus has shaken up our collective equilibrium so much so that going back to our respective offices, while still trying to stay healthy and safe, will feel a little more like “business as unusual.”
Indeed, working at the office will feel different for at least the next few months, if not well into 2021. We will still need to practice social distancing, we will probably be asked to work less frequently at the office, our chats in the break room are now but a distant memory, and we will see a lot of face masks at the office.
In addition to “business as unusual” at the office, we have all had the chance to work remotely for an extended period of time time. We might be starting to prefer the convenience and reduced risk of the “home office” a little more. Not surprisingly, we are beginning to wonder – Will working remotely be more commonplace for our profession into the future? The answer to that question is – most likely, yes.
This time of working remotely has opened our eyes to the benefits, and some of the pitfalls, of working from home. While the legal profession has historically been reluctant to embrace change and is usually a “late adopter” to new technologies, this pandemic may have just altered that perspective for good.
Because telecommuting might be a significant part of our legal work moving forward, in this article we are going to discuss (i) the practice areas that are best suited for remote work,
(ii) the social disadvantages of working remotely,
(iii) the things that are most important when it comes to productive telecommuting,
(iv) what the trend towards telecommuting could mean for your legal career search in the future. No matter how we feel about working remotely, it seems like remote work is here to stay.
- What Practice Areas are Best Suited for Remote Work?
We did our research to come up with the legal specialties that were best suited to remote work, and we ultimately realized that there are very few practice areas that could not be done remotely. Virtually every aspect of the practice of law, from administrative law to tax law, can be accomplished outside of the office. Provided you have a way to draft, edit, and share documents, contracts, or legal briefs, and you have a way to communicate with clients and colleagues via phone, video, and email; legal work can be conducted from just about anywhere.
Now, you might think that is less true when it comes to litigators. After all, a litigator needs to go to court at some point, right? Well, not so much. During the pandemic, virtually all court hearings were held via telephone or video conference. Even oral argument before the U.S. Supreme Court occurred by phone. And as icing on the cake, a court in Texas recently held the first jury trial by Zoom. All of this is to say, that there are very few task-related barriers to being able to do most, if not all, your legal work from home.
- How About the Social Aspect to Serving Clients, and Exchanging Ideas?
It is true that being a lawyer is partially about research and drafting on your own. Lawyers also serve their clients’ needs, which includes face-to-face consultations to advise and inform them about the matters that we are engaged for. That, of course, can still largely be handled by video conference, provided that you are in a confidential place where no one can eavesdrop on your conversation. That could be a bigger challenge if you are home in a busy household with lots of activity going on. Still, we have heard many resourceful and creative examples of carving out private work spaces.
One drawback to practicing remotely, something that technology like video conferencing may not be able to replace, is the exchange of ideas at the office. We all know that a great benefit to working in an office is that you can quickly “pop in” on someone to ask a legal question that might have you stuck. The “2+2=5” aspect of having lots of other lawyers with lots of experience around to help you in a pinch is invaluable.
Yet, that kind of informal exchange is harder to come by in a remote-work world. You know that there are just those small issues that might prompt you to ask a quick question, but they would not typically inspire you to pick up the phone or schedule a meeting with a colleague. Hopefully, through weekly team meetings, or regular check-in meetings, some of that informal exchange of ideas can survive when working remotely.
- The Necessaries of Productive and Secure Remote Work. Working “From Home” vs. “A Home Office.”
Everyone did the best they could during the pandemic, and many lawyers worked from places that they did not know could function as an office. That’s’ working “from home.” If you or your organization decide that you will continue to work remotely, then you need to make sure that you have some remote work “infrastructure” in place. What goes into a “home office infrastructure?” Here are a few items to keep in mind:
- A quiet and confidential place to work
- A place that has an innocuous, non-distracting background for video conferences
- An environment that allows you to exercise discipline to stay on a schedule.
- The right equipment, and access to firm or company email and database systems
- Cyber protection
In addition to those necessaries, there is one essential aspect that has gotten a lot of attention recently because so many of us are working from home – cybersecurity. As a firm or in-house attorney, you need to be diligent about securing your personal computer if that is the tool you use to work remotely.
When everyone is in the same location, you have an easier time accessing the firm server, and IT can better control the data that is stored in that server. However, with many people working remotely, we might get a little lazy in our practices. We may use personal email or Dropbox to send something when it would be better practice to stay within the organization’s computer applications. The risk of data loss, or ethical problems with the possible exposure of sensitive, confidential information, increases in a remote-work world. Thus, strict compliance with firm or company data policies is vital.
- Remote Work and Managing Your Career
At the beginning of the pandemic, many of us likely jumped to the conclusion that making a career transition should be put on hold. While the realities of a steep economic downturn have compressed the legal industry, like everything else in the economy, there might actually be legal opportunities created, thanks to several shifting economic forces. Where there is change, there can be opportunity.
There are two primary “silver linings” that come with considering a career movement while being remote. First, your interviewing schedule might be a whole lot easier given that many employers, once they start hiring, will likely want to use video conference as a way to interview you. So, you will be able to go on a lot more interviews in a short period of time without having to leave your home.
Second, the notion of a “virtual legal team” or “virtual law firm” is an innovation that has already taken hold in the last few years. We have spoken with several General Counsel who are contemplating how a partial or entire virtual legal team would operate. If you are willing to look beyond your immediate geographic location, you will find that you have increased the number of career options substantially.
It will be “business as unusual” for a while, and unusual may become the new norm. So, take the time now to figure out how you can maximize efficiencies in your area of practice while working remotely. By adapting to that mode of work, you will bring value add to your current organization or the company that will be smart enough to hire you!