An office skill soon to be lost on the next generation of young lawyers
Dozens of in-house lawyers have been giving their verdict on what they want from the lawyers they instruct and, so far, only two have expressed a preference for external advisors to work from the office.
An outlier commented that the office environment encourages "more collaboration between teams" and "more training". The private equity client said that they "don't just want to instruct document monkeys."
The other client in favour of their lawyers returning to the office had concerns that "the average lawyer in London has hundreds of pages of confidential documents in their home. It is a ticking time bomb of liability risk."
Everyone else either didn't mind, or expressed a preference for the lawyers they instruct to have the flexibility to work from home.
"I want the job done. Do it from the office, do it from home, colonise Mars and do it from there," said a client in financial services. "So long as you have a stable internet connection and know where the unmute button is I really don't care."
"As long as they provide what I ask them and the quality is good, I don't give a shit where they work," agreed another in-house lawyer.
Some respondents felt that remote working was beneficial for the welfare of their lawyers. "I want them to work however suits them and enables them to do my work in a way that doesn't screw up their mental health," said a banking client. "I think law firms have a lot to do over and above allowing agile working, but I think trusting people to be adults is a start."
"A happy, less stressed lawyer will do better work," agreed a real estate client. "If I need to see people in person, I will ask. A small amount of in-person relationship building is helpful but we have done plenty of deals with people we have never met in person until the completion drinks!"
"I'd like our external lawyers to be adults," said an in-house lawyer in a bank. "WFH has clear benefits for many people and leads to more relaxed, balanced habits. We'd like our lawyers to be trusted to get things done without them being chained to their desks."
"I want the lawyers we instruct to be content - not on the edge of breakdown," said one client. While another commented that lawyers "should be able to manage their lives, as long as they can deliver when needed".
"Happier external counsel is a better external counsel," summed up an in-house lawyer in the healthcare sector.
Some respondents noted that other organisations had embraced remote working, and law firms should mirror this, not least from a recruitment perspective. "Law firms should reflect societal changes to working patterns," said an in-house lawyer in a bank. "It may also indirectly increase diversity."
Another in-house lawyer concurred that wfh allows firms to select "more diverse candidates."
A client expanded on this view, saying that remote working is important for "equality in employment when many have disabilities, or home commitments" as they can "still fulfil the job being remote".
Firms that didn't provide flexibility would find it "difficult to recruit the right talent", opined a client in the manufacturing sector.
Some clients were relaxed about their lawyers working remotely, given that is how they operate. "I work from home so it would be hypocritical to not think others can," said one respondent.
"I like flexibility and I think most people do," said an in-house lawyer in the energy sector. "We work harder and smarter that way. The team are more motivated to work through the night to get something done that's critical if they know they have the ability to WFH or if things are quiet to take some flexi time off. It's not as if modern comms are rubbish".
Others believed that the pandemic has had a permanent effect on work habits. "The world has changed since Covid," said a client in financial services. "I do not mind where my external counsel are located as long as they can do a good job."
Another agreed: "Just let people do it. Putting the genie back in the bottle is not going to happen. Move on."
"I can't see it has a material effect on the quality of advice, even at the height of lockdowns," said one respondent, "as such, whatever works best for individuals works for me."
"It makes no difference where they are as long as they are accessible and I don't want to work with a firm with antediluvian attitudes," said a client.
One in-house lawyer pointed out that remote working could be a way to help drive down costs: "We expect our lawyers to be innovative when it comes to fees. Law firms should be able to save money on office expenses and outgoings if their lawyers work from home. Wouldn't it be innovative if firms then passed some of those savings on to the client?!"
Other clients felt that remote working meant their lawyers were more available. "I feel less bad about the urgent, late requests if I know I'm not also keeping them from their home," said one client.
Another respondent said that their lawyers are "more willing to be responsive" with remote working, as "they have a better quality of life."
A number of in-house lawyers who were in favour of remote working, highlighted that it was still vital to get the balance right with time spent in the office. "I don't care where they are - but I do think office, for at least part of the time...is necessary to make sure juniors learn properly by observing what more senior lawyers do in a more organic way," said an in-house lawyer in financial services.
"I think the balance is important," said a client in the energy sector. "There should be flexibility from home but time in the office is helpful for co-operation amongst their own team." They believed there would be "better results from team work and also less stressed out people if they can balance life through wfh."
In last year's survey, 51% of in-house lawyers said that they wouldn't mind if the lawyers that they instruct work remotely. 42% said they would actually prefer that law firms give staff the flexibility to work from home. Only 6% of respondents wanted their lawyers to be in the office. 1% wanted their lawyers to be in the office full-time.
Agree or disagree? If you're in-house, have your say below.