Many expect 2021 to be the year when the legal industry starts to recover from pandemic disruption and lawyers and staff return to the office. But I expect it to be the year when law firms cease to have any defining characteristics.
It won’t be a case of simply returning to the office. The industry is on the verge of finding a new normal, where people mix time in the office and time working from home, and whatever is decided is likely to set the standard for years to come.
Talk to law firm leaders in the U.K. and it feels like roughly three days a week in the office will become the norm—Linklaters and Herbert Smith Freehills have already said as much—which will be viewed as a great victory for proponents of flexible working. Law firm bosses might also welcome the change, as it offers them the chance to save some money on rent.
But they should be careful what they wish for. There are several practical problems with remote working that could take years to fully emerge, from client confidentiality risks to home office equipment costs to hiring and training complications.
Yet all this would be just about manageable if it weren’t for the effect that remote working could have on what law firm leaders have long argued is the most important thing of all: culture.
Culture is what makes law firms unique. They all talk of having something distinct that sets them apart—being collegiate, innovative, friendly, competitive and so on. And yet so many of these characteristics are formed through real-life interactions: the way partners speak to juniors (and vice versa); how seriously people behave; whether colleagues bring in cake for birthdays; whether men wear ties and women wear skirts; the hours everyone works; the socializing that takes place.
Limited time spent together means limited opportunity for firms to create the environment they covet. Can you really call regular Zoom quiz evenings part of an office’s culture? Will seeing someone in person once or twice a week build sufficient professional loyalty? What unplanned meetings and conversations will take place?
Some things that used to define a firm’s culture have already begun eroding. Pay at the junior end is fairly standardized now. At the senior end, a pure lockstep system will always encourage different behavior than a pure eat-what-you-kill approach. But most firms have converged on a common path, operating with a modified lockstep arrangement. Allen & Overy recently changed its system; Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer is considering doing the same.
Office premises also used to affect the sense of prestige and the behavior within a firm, but with remote work increasing, it no longer matters as much.
The way people deal with each other is one of the few things remaining that make firms stand out, and it is far more meaningful in real life. As one U.K. law firm head asks: “Without face-to-face interaction, what is left?”
Perhaps law firm partnerships should view this is a rare opportunity to choose the kind of firm they want to be. Profitability might not be affected by remote working; the periods of lockdown demonstrated that work and communication continued efficiently. But feelings of isolation and abandonment got worse, especially among young lawyers. And as more trainee intakes arrive into a remote working environment, the historical notion of belonging and camaraderie will only decrease.
The result is likely to be an industry made up of many firms, hardly any of which feel particularly distinct from one another, even to the people who work within them. All will celebrate their international capabilities, all will offer flexible working policies, all will talk about diversity, all will have similar pay systems.
Office culture was the last big differentiator—and it could soon be gone.
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