Survey Says? . . . Remote Work Might Be Here to Stay

The pandemic has already changed many things about our way of life.  We are still staying home as much as possible while the pandemic continues to surge, and you might have gotten used to working remotely over the last few months.

The bigger question, however, is whether remote work will become a permanent part of our lives, even after the pandemic subsides.  To answer that question, some organizations have conducted surveys on remote work . . . and the results are in.

In this article, we are going to discuss those survey results and consider what their implications are for how the practice of law will be conducted – both for in-house and law firm attorneys – far into the future.  In addition, we will cover how you can take steps now to make sure that you remain competitive in tomorrow’s legal job market.

The key is to adapt.  As long as you are able to flex your style to incorporate an increase in remote work, you will be able to thrive in the legal market of the future.

A.     In-House Counsel: Much More Comfortable with Remote Work Than They Were Just Five Months Ago

According to a recent survey by the Association of Corporate Counsel, almost half of in-house counsel believe that remote work is here to stay even after the pandemic fades into history.  In addition, the survey indicates that more than 70 percent of in-house counsel say that they feel very comfortable with remote work, including videoconferencing.  That is a huge increase from the 21 percent of in-house counsel who felt the same before offices started closing several months ago.

As with most things, once we become accustomed to a new way of doing things, the fears and anxieties that come along with making the change fade away.  To be sure, the legal community is not considered an industry of “early adopters.”  As businesses moved to the internet in the late 1990s and early 2000s, law firms were the last to get their websites up.  As the world was increasingly becoming paperless, courts were among the last to allow the filing of papers electronically.

Yet, borne out of the necessity of the current health crisis, lawyers working in-house have successfully made the transition to remote work on a full-time basis.  Moreover, companies have been able to leverage their technology to ensure that in-house lawyers can access the necessary documents and get all their work done from home.

In fact, the conversion to remote work has been so effective that companies are beginning to rethink whether they even need the office space that they currently have.  About 33 percent of those surveyed by the Association of Corporate Counsel expect that their company’s physical office presence will likely shrink.

With these changes a word of caution is in order. There may be a tendency to treat remote workers differently and we all need to be aware of “remote bias”. It is important to make sure that expectations are clearly defined and regular check in meetings have been established.

B.     Law Firms: Downsizing Their Real Estate Footprint Might Go into Overdrive

In another survey, this one by the global commercial real estate services firm Cushman & Wakefield, respondents suggest that law firms are already looking to reduce their real estate footprints, particularly in urban markets where the rents are substantially higher.

Specifically, about one-third of survey respondents expect law firms to reduce their physical office space by over 20 percent due to the pandemic.  Further, the 608 law firms who took the survey state that over 10 percent of their attorneys will work remotely most of the time in the long term.

We already see those kinds of changes.  The world’s largest law firm, Dentons, is set to close two offices in the United Kingdom, allowing employees at those locations to permanently work from home.  Similarly, Husch Blackwell, an American firm with over 600 lawyers, just launched a “virtual office” in July 2020.  The virtual office is planned to serve as a focal point for a few dozen lawyers who are no longer tied to a physical law office location.

While the numbers might be skewed because we are still in the middle of the pandemic, Cushman & Wakefield reports that the number of law firms signing or renewing leases for office space has dropped by 75 percent in April and May, compared to a three-year average from 2016 to 2019.

This push towards less physical office space is to be expected.  As professionals adapt  to working from home, and as companies and firms refine their remote work policies, it simply makes sense to allow for it.  The second highest cost for many law firms is real estate.  Thus, the ease of remote work translates into considerable savings for firms.

C.     What Does This Mean for Your Legal Job Search?

It is important to remember that the actual practice of law – the nuts and bolts of handling cases for a law firm client or leading corporate initiatives in-house – are not likely to change as a result of working remotely.  Actually, the real change is in managing the logistics of interacting with managers, colleagues, and clients when there is less in-person interaction overall.  So, when engaging in your job search, you want to highlight how you are able to make remote work an asset to your practice of law.

Here are a few skills you might want to emphasize in order to stand out from the competition:

  • Supervision: One of the biggest fears that legal employers have about remote work is the ability to monitor their employees.  The notion that “when the cat’s away the mice will play” still seems to concern legal leaders.  When it comes to your value add in interviewing for a new position, be sure to mention your ability to work efficiently, and effectively when working remotely.  That could very well put a potential employer at ease.
  • Facility with Tech: As legal employers decrease their real estate budget, they will increase their tech budget.  Accordingly, emphasizing your expertise with technology – from hopping on VPNs and editing .pdf files to setting up a virtual meeting, to working with e- discovery software, and legal ops concepts,  – your tech knowledge might just be the distinguishing skill set that sets you apart from your colleagues.
  • Experience Managing Workflow: Your ability to not only be a self-starter, but also to meet deadlines and keep leaders apprised of the projects you are working on when not in the office, can be worth its weight in gold.  That means that you should have examples to discuss with interviewers about how you are able to make sure your leaders are comfortable that you are taking care of business, meeting milestones, and not getting distracted when working remotely from home.

Adapt and Thrive

While we have had the technology for quite some time, it may have taken a pandemic to push the legal industry (and most other industries) into the world of remote work as a primary way of conducting business.  And now that remote work is generally accepted, it will likely be hard to go back to old times.  So, if you are looking to move your legal search forward, the key with our shift to remote work is to be good at adapting to the new normal.