Author: Jeremy Small, CEO
As Iain very eloquently wrote about in our previous article, there are a number of deeper-lying issues concerning the current hottest employment issue, working from home. In this article I want to concentrate on the legal sector and draw attention to another consequence of the shift in working patterns that has been thrust upon us as a society – the use of technology, especially technology that has been created specifically for our industry.
I said that the working from home trend had been thrust upon us, but that does not tell the whole story, and it is in all likelihood going to become a lot more permanent than merely a trend. Even before the havoc wreaked by COVID 19, there was a gradual shift towards remote working and working from home, across all sectors. It may have been a day a week, or simply when domestic matters reared their needy head, but it proved to employees and employers alike that the world did not grind to a halt if the working day was not bookended by a forty minute commute.
Then COVID struck and what was probably going to be a long drawn out shift in changing attitudes and practices happened overnight. I am not going to sit here and say it was easy, it certainly was not, especially for certain people, but most of the problems revolved around non-work situations, specifically tied into the lockdown. Once again, the legal world did not grind to a halt, people learned to continue to do their job, and discovered that there was help out there in the form of technology and software. I will return to that shortly, but first some statistics.
Working from Home in Numbers
Since April, 46.6% ¹ of the UK workforce worked from home one day or more each week. For London, that figure rises to 57.2% ¹. The sector in which the legal profession firmly sits had the highest percentage with 69.6% 1 working from home at least some of their working week. So, if you work in a law firm or department, and are London based, you are in the highest possible band.
A report into how the legal profession in the US was handling that shift found that 85% 2 of respondents were able to remain productive while working from home, with 92% claiming that their clients’ needs were continuing to be met (it does not say what that percentage was prior to the pandemic…).
Yet another study, this time on this side of the pond, found that more than 50% 3 of lawyers and business services staff would prefer to continue working at home, after the COVID crisis has ended. Prior to the pandemic the numbers were at 2% 3.
A Workplace Revolution
That is some shift, and a lot of it is down to the realisation that there are means available to facilitate working from home. Not for the first time, technology has come to the rescue, mounted on a shiny white steed dispensing lightning fast Wi-Fi and mobile apps in its wake. In the same way that “Zoom Call” has suddenly entered the nation’s lexicon, lawyers around the country are now au fait with a whole host of legal practice management tools. Technology has always paid a role in our working lives, but it has tended to be in the guise of a time saver, or focussed on communication. Now though we are able to use it as a genuine support function, as another member of the team. A member that doesn’t take holidays, get ill, make errors or start an argument at the company Christmas party.
I have taken the leap myself to become an advisory board member to a fast growing legal practice management company called App4Legal (www.app4legal.com) which provides a full suite of tools for a lawyer including contract, litigation and IP management tools, billing and accounts and a client/external advisor portal. The system is integrated with Microsoft 365 and integrated with additional tools such as DocuSign. The rise of low cost practice management software is helping law firms and in-house legal teams to reduce reliance on office work, simplify peripheral administration tasks and allow the lawyers themselves to spend their time doing what they are paid to do, and what their client needs (and pays) them to do. Such tools also increase collaboration and efficiency amongst teams and let senior lawyers manage their teams, assigning tasks, project manage and viewing progress in real time. Software now effectively provides lawyers with all the tools they need to work from wherever they choose and on whichever device they choose.
Even more advanced, and something that was until only relatively recently very much the preserve of science fiction, AI is taking on a wider role in the legal practice workplace. It is currently used to help in everything from speeding up the e-disclosure process to research and document assembly. This is perhaps the area that is going to see the greatest advances in the coming years. Even the word technology or artificial intelligence used to cause many a middle aged man or woman to roll their eyes at best, or come out in a cold sweat at worse, but along with the advancement in the technology itself, crucially, the interface between man and machine has improved at the same pace, meaning that you don’t have to be sixteen years old, or with a degree in IT to use it.
There is another consequence to this. As more and more software applications take up the strain, the role of legal secretaries and support staff in general – for so long such a crucial and intrinsic part of a law firm’s make up – is becoming increasingly tenuous. It is a sector that is highly likely to be one of the most badly hit by COVID 19 and its aftermath. Hopefully the rise in legal tech related roles will help soften the blow and allow some staff to be redistributed into other roles.
I started by saying that this revolution in the available tech has been a consequence of the shift in working patterns, but I really think that it is the other way around, and that the readily available software and apps have more than anything else enabled the smooth transition from the corporate office to the home one for so many of us.
2 LOEB Leadership survey into The Legal Industry’s Handling of the Disruption Caused by COVID-19 May 2020
3 RollOnFriday June 2020