The Pandemic and Flexible Working – Through a Different Lens

Laura Klass, Associate Director, Private Practice (London & Mainland Europe)

As we approach the four years’ mark since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is important to consider how the legal market and in particular, how lawyers’ attitudes and mindsets have changed. The legal community has generally embraced the changes that were driven solely by the pandemic which, at surface level, seem obvious, however, when you look a little deeper, you will find a fundamental shift in how the profession now operates.

The legal community was greatly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, and it is undoubtedly still seeing the effects. One of the first repercussions was law firms being forced to send their lawyers home due to the March 2020 lockdown.

Not only did lawyers have to adjust to a new way of working, without all the bells and whistles which office life provides, but also to a new dynamic. Suddenly, legal professionals were working at home with their partners and children, a situation that a lot of lawyers were not too keen on bringing into their lives; many were very content to keep their private and work lives completely separate.

While the move to remote work created a steep learning curve for some, the legal community was able to navigate this change and many lawyers concluded that working from home was not only an acceptable premise, but preferable to being in the office, leading to a high demand for flexible working across the entire legal spectrum.

Higher demand for flexible working hours does not mean that lawyers are shying away from long hours. Conversely, it is becoming apparent that lawyers are increasingly determined to work harder on a flexible basis, fitting in life around work. Before the pandemic, a lawyer working remotely to the degree they are now was very rare, as it was thought of as neither effective, nor efficient. Yet after three and a half years of remote work, many lawyers are realising that working remotely can be productive and enables a better work-life balance. I have seen great interest among lawyers who want to continue with their current working patterns, even as some law firms are beginning to lean back towards in-person work.

An interesting by-product of lawyers being forced to work remotely was a fundamental mindset shift. Many came to the realisation that they sought a better work/life balance and they were now looking to prioritise that work/life balance over what they may have previously valued most. Sometimes in life the decisions that are forced upon us rather than those in which we have a choice lead to a place which we may never have expected.

This mindset shift was seen further through a deviation from the singular focus with career progression. We are seeing fewer going for that ‘all-important’ partnership track; rather, we are seeing a trend of lawyers who are seeking senior roles that can offer a better work/life balance, whether that is a legal director role (which is not a path to partnership), or a transition from a fee earner role to a different position, such as a knowledge role.

Additionally, lawyers began to shift how they viewed other lawyers, that they were real people with lives outside the office. This was a side that we really had not seen before, as interactions were often limited to client/ partner meetings or snatched conversations by the water cooler. The sudden interjection of children and dogs interrupting Zoom meetings becoming a regular occurrence brought a real sense of normality and humanity to their professional lives.

Now that the legal community has recognised that working remotely can be done effectively and lawyers are seeing the personal benefits of a better work-life balance, many want to continue working from home, at least part of the time. When some law firms started announcing their return-to-work plans and releasing statements to that effect, they received a significant amount of resistance from their employees.

However, having spoken to a great number of lawyers since the onset of the pandemic, it would be remiss of me not to mention those for whom it has been a difficult time. For those living on their own, the lack of human contact was incredibly tough; isolation was a real issue. A group that was particularly affected was trainee solicitors. A training contract is a significant time in a lawyer’s career and for the majority, their first time in a law firm environment, so it is particularly important for them to be around other lawyers, not only the partners from whom they are looking to learn, but also other associates. For those qualifying in March/ September 2020 and March 2021, it was a very trying time.

While some lawyers are eager to return to the office on a full-time basis, the majority are looking for a hybrid work schedule. In my role as a recruitment consultant, I have seen a noticeable increase in those who ask me, as a first priority, about roles that can offer either remote work, or a hybrid work schedule. It used to be that the first question was focussed on salary and whilst that will always play a part in a candidate’s thinking, I would say that the number one priority today is how many days do I have to be in the office and can I work fully remotely?

The legal marketplace has seen significant and unforeseen changes since March 2020 and we will I think continue to see those changes unfold in the coming months/ years. So much focus has been put on the flexibility brought on by the pandemic, but with a little thought and insight, it is easy to see that the industry itself has fundamentally changed, humanising legal professionals and ultimately shifting their priorities and mindset. The pandemic did much more than cut down on commute time, it has revitalised an industry with increased understanding, empathy and consideration, one that was not particularly noted for these qualities in the past.