Rewind the clock back a year and the working landscape looked very different. 2020 was a year where many businesses were challenged like never before. For some, the pressures of the year became too much, with many organisations closing their doors for the last time. However, many businesses took to the challenges with gusto, adapting and innovating to overcome a multitude of obstacles.
Mobliciti has been following the stories of a number of legal practices across the UK since the beginning of the first lockdown in April 2020. Touching base every few months, we’ve been chronicling how the traditional legal industry has been forced to adapt, and the pitfalls and triumphs that have come with it. With the UK now in the grips of its third lockdown in ten months, we reflect on the challenges the legal industry has dealt with, and many times overcome.
Adapt or Die
This was the harsh reality faced by businesses globally in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Traditional organisations that still clung to bricks and mortar offices with desktop set-ups were plunged into the unknown.
One sector that has always been tied to its roots is the legal industry, having always favoured spacious offices, meeting rooms, and a hub of lawyers who rarely worked from home.
When we first spoke to members of the legal IT community in May 2020 for the first instalment of our Legal in Lockdown series, it quickly became apparent that legal firms had thrown themselves straight into this newly presented challenge. Although some were initially out of their depth, IT rose to deal with the challenge, working hard to ensure that employees were able to work from home.
Many industries struggled to adapt to an entirely different way of working, but when Mobliciti touched in with various CIO’s and IT Directors a few months down the line, the overall consensus was that the legal industry had adapted admirably. Several months into lockdown, discussions around various Business Continuity Plan’s (BCP) were had. Many firms prior to lockdown had a secondary site on hold as part of their BCP, which would have allowed for staff to work from another location. With COVID-19 preventing these sites from being used, it had become apparent that staff were more than capable of working from home without the need of this secondary site. Reflecting on their BCP’s, many law firms announced to us that they would be cancelling their secondary office locations going forward.
In fact, a common theme that seems to have appeared over the last year during discussions is that the COVID-19 pandemic has actually aided the legal industry when it comes to digital transformation, with many achieving more in the space of a few months than they had in ten years.
Supporting Remote Workers
Even before the first lockdown began, many companies were closing their offices, allowing employees to work from home in order to minimise exposure to COVID-19. The initial few weeks predictably verged on chaos, as both office workers and IT support adapted to a very different way of working. Preliminary discussions within legal found that, although service desk calls spiked within the first weeks of the March lockdown, they quickly dropped off. This suggests that one of the primary issues workers were facing was initial teething problems – unsurprising given that non-technically trained employees were setting up their own workspaces, as well as dealing with new technology such as remote phones and video conferencing.
Once these early technical problems were solved, the feedback has been that IT managed to admirably provide support for their legal staff from remote locations.
The Home Network Headache
Throughout the year, home broadband has been a hotly discussed topic within Mobliciti’s Legal in Lockdown series. With legal workers primarily based at the corporate office prior to COVID-19, few had ever dealt with working from home five days a week, let alone for months on end. As such, the vast majority of employees were unaware of the extent of the impact that problematic home Wi-Fi could have on their ability to work from home.
During Mobliciti’s first discussion with the legal IT community, many slated their employees home broadband as “unmanageable and upload speed is a killer”. Countless users were struggling with lag, intolerably slow upload speeds and connections cutting out.
Unlike many support desk queries, the home network issue was not so easily solved. Several months into the pandemic, legal firms were reporting to us that they were still having major issues with employee networks. Little insight into home networks was proving especially problematic for IT, making it almost impossible to troubleshoot anything but the most basic of issues. Meanwhile, employees living in rural locations were having continual issues due to extremely challenging connectivity and poor signal.
At the start of the first UK lockdown, few believed that home working would be a permanent fixture, with businesses focusing their time and money on immediately solvable issues. However, as the COVID-19 pandemic continued – and employees proved they were able to productively work from home – law firms have come to terms with the fact that home working is likely here to stay, and therefore home connectivity issues now need to be seriously dealt with.
In response to a rising number of comments regarding home connectivity, Mobliciti created homeConnect, offering business-grade home connectivity. homeConnect enables employees to securely and efficiently work from home, whilst allowing IT the ability to troubleshoot on networks. Providing employees with homeConnect allows legal firms to ensure their staff can continue working from home as seamlessly and securely as possible.
What's Your Biggest Challenge When Supporting Home Working?
Attendees during a Legal in Lockdown session were surveyed to find out what their lockdown challenges were.
Preliminary discussions in the wake of the first lockdown identified that the tools available to employees were extremely disparate, with little continuity. Video conferencing platforms alone included Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Webex, Skype and GoTo Meetings and firms had very differing opinions of which collaboration tools they favoured.
Employees also had their own ideas around which collaboration tools to use, leading to a sharp rise in Shadow IT, downloading and utilising a variety of platforms that hadn’t been approved for use by IT. In October 2020, several months after the UK lockdowns began, collaboration tools were still proving to be an issue with the legal industry. Multiple platforms in use have led to a degree of confusion, with lawyers often sending out links on multiple platforms for a single meeting.
Many legal firms have now chosen a clear collaboration tool strategy, with Microsoft Teams and Zoom being the preferred platforms.
Employee Productivity – Office Vs. Home
Conversations around home working for legal employees have varied hugely. At the beginning of the first lockdown, the obvious focus lay in ensuring workers had everything they needed to work competently. The national stay at home order gave the employees of legal firms’ little choice but to adapt to the new way of working. As a result, users adopted a ‘push through’ approach. We’ve heard praise for the way lawyers have responded to the situation, with some CIO’s and IT Directors commenting that they’d actually seen lawyers billing more from home than when office-based.
Discussions towards the end of the 2020 surrounding employees shifted, however, as the UK entered a second and then a subsequent third lockdown. Growing concerns have been raised about the personal development of employees when they are solely working from home. For junior employees, some may struggle to learn and enhance their skills without the natural osmosis learning that comes from working together in the office. A number of the CIOs and IT Directors at law firms we spoke to are consciously investing time in supporting their team in the wake of this, making themselves more ‘visible’ to team members and enhancing their understanding of employee needs.
With employees expected to spend far less time in the office post-pandemic, legal firms will need to find new ways to coach and mentor junior members.
The Future of Legal?
Without a doubt, few were aware of the long-lasting repercussions when the COVID-19 pandemic began in March 2020.
Initial discussions in the summer of 2020 were still fairly vague when it came to the future of legal, as the first UK lockdown extended longer than predicted. Even from these preliminary discussions, however, it became clear that the way the legal industry would operate moving forward was going to significantly change. Almost immediately, it became obvious that employees dramatically favoured working from home over the traditional office. However, early conversations also highlighted that this preliminary preference towards home working could simply be due to employees’ desire to minimise their risk of being in contact with COVID-19.
Despite early concerns, it is now evident that home working is here to stay. In autumn of 2020, one law firm reported that 80% of their staff wanted to continue working from home, with a visit to the office once or twice a week. As time went by and employees became truly comfortable working from home, many have raised concerns about the future return to the office, with a particular focus on time spent travelling. Reports have identified that younger workers are favouring a return to the office, whilst older workers are more comfortable working from home. As a result, more firms are adopting an approach of catering to the individual employee, discussing the working style they prefer so that those who want to be in the office can be, whilst those leaning towards home working are also able to do so.
The mass move to working from home has not necessarily signalled the end of the corporate office. Some law firms saw a gradual rise in the number of employees attending the office throughout the autumn and winter, during the times that the UK was out of lockdown. Having worked from home since March 2020, it is perhaps not surprising that employees desired a change of scenery, with the office offering a socially-rich and fresh environment.
It swiftly became apparent to the legal industry that big changes would also most likely be necessary for the corporate office upon return. Once early technical problems were solved, the reduction of some office equipment, such as physical fixed phones and printers, was a topic brought up soon after the first lockdown began – with employees functioning perfectly well without them from home, the necessity of having them came into question. One unexpected issue that has been raised numerous times is a concern for the corporate Wi-Fi once employees return to the office. Video meetings have become a permanent and accepted fixture of the workplace and many lawyers anticipate continuing this trend, as it saves huge amounts of time spent travelling. Concerns are now being raised that office Wi-Fi needs a complete refresh to keep up with changing demands in 2021.
As time passed, allowing more time for reflection, various legal firms have discussed with Mobliciti the future of their office. Towards the end of 2020, there was a general shift towards the expectation that, upon the return to the office, an agile working office environment would be favoured. Many firms are predicting an open-plan office, with flexible desk spaces and dedicated areas for collaboration. Discussions have also included the possibility of significantly reducing office sizes. Incorporating HR into agile working discussions is a new move for many law firms but doing so ensures that the right balance is struck for both employee and business. How quickly these changes will happen will have to be seen, but it has become increasingly clear that the COVID-19 pandemic has permanently changed the way that law firms work.