The COVID-19 Silver Lining for Law Firms

By Alay Yajnik

May 26, 2020

The legal industry is notorious for embracing technology at a glacial pace. Many law firms use technology that is years behind professional service firms in other industries. One particular issue that has been a sore subject for many law firm employees is the idea of working from home.

The COVID-19 pandemic and the "shelter in place" orders have quickly driven many law firms to modernize their technology, allowing them to serve clients while attorneys and staff work from home. Many law firms now have technologies in place that allow:

  • Secure access to the law firm's case and document management systems from home
  • An employee's telephone extension to ring on another phone number or on their computer
  • Videoconference applications for face-to-face meetings with colleagues and clients
  • Electronic signature capabilities for certain documents
  • Collaboration tools such as email, calendar, chat, and document sharing

Prior to COVID-19, working from home was common in certain industries and regions. For example, where I live in the San Francisco Bay area, professional service and technology workers are expected to have some capability to work from home. Many use these capabilities to work additional hours outside normal business hours: earlier in the mornings or later in the evenings. Other people work from home a couple of days a week, or when obligations such as caregiving duties, doctor appointments, etc. make it difficult for them to commute to the office.

However, many traditional law firms, even in Silicon Valley, have resisted the idea of having attorneys and staff work from home. The firms were concerned about decreased productivity, lower quality of work, and damage to the firm's culture and esprit de corps.

Law firms have now proven to themselves that employees working from home can be productive. Case studies from organizations such as Ctrip and RescueTime are concluding that many people (though not all people) are more productive when working from home: they work longer hours, take fewer breaks, and waste less time. Although the impact of working from home on productivity is a complex issue, the bottom line is that it seems to work well for some people and not so well for others.

As "shelter in place" orders expire across the country, some people cling to the belief that things will return to how they were before the pandemic. When it comes to working from home, however, law firms will need this capability for the foreseeable future because:

  • Some employees may feel unsafe and may wish to continue working from home, particularly if they are vulnerable to COVID-19 or interact with people vulnerable to it (e.g., aging parents).
  • Social distancing practices are likely to remain in place, reducing the number of people who are allowed in the office at any one time. It is possible that some firms will adopt a staggered schedule, with some people in the office and others working from home.
  • Firms need to be ready to "shelter in place" going forward. The likelihood of future "shelter in place" orders is significant, either because of a resurgence of the novel Coronavirus or because of another pandemic.

Many law firms already permitted working from home prior to COVID-19, either completely or partially. These firms enjoyed the increased employee retention and productivity benefits that occurred as a result of adopting policies to support working from home.

Hoge Fenton, a prestigious law firm established in San Francisco in 1952, is an example of this. Months before the COVID-19 pandemic, one of the firm's associate attorneys was moving to Seattle for personal reasons. Rather than lose her, the firm allowed her to work from home full time. She has been a committed, productive attorney for the firm ever since.

Now, all law firms have a golden opportunity to reap the benefits of a culture that supports employees working from home. Likewise, law firms that revert to the traditional, office-only culture will be a greater disadvantage than ever:

  • They may lose some of their best talent to law firms that embrace working from home.
  • They may fail to attract the best talent.
  • They may experience increased absenteeism, lower morale, and reduced retention.

When it comes to working from home, the COVID-19 pandemic does have a silver lining. Law firms that never had a single remote employee have now experienced their entire workforce working remotely for weeks. Working from home is now here to stay. Employees can enjoy the wellness and quality of life benefits that come with the option to work from home, while law firms that support work from home policies will experience a more productive workforce, reduced turnover, happier employees, and perhaps higher profits.

About the Author
Alay Yajnik is an author, speaker, and advisor with Lawyer Business Advantage. He is the author of "Staffing Up: The Attorney's Guide to Hiring Top Talent" available on Amazon.

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