Hybrid Work Is Here to Stay. Can Firms Sustain Its Success Over the Long Term?

Last year, as COVID-19 mandates and concerns eased, firms transitioned from a fully remote environment to a hybrid workflow. But when lawyers and staff returned back to the office, it wasn’t just the dust that collected on their desks that needed to be addressed.

Law firm leaders and their tech consultants discovered that pre-pandemic office protocols don’t suffice when staff and lawyers are not in the office five days a week. Instead, the success of long-term hybrid work arrangements hinges on firms adapting their processes, collaborative approach, budgets and culture to new demands and expectations.

Hybrid work arrangements aren’t entirely new for law firms. But the scale of remote work post-pandemic will test their previous protocols.

“A lot of law firms have typically worked in a hybrid model prior to this,” notes Baker McKenzie chief information officer Daniel Surowiec. “I think it’s [now about] sharpening up some of those skills to be a little more useful and ready-made.”

While many law firms successfully pivoted the bulk of their workforce to remote working arrangements in response to the pandemic, Joshua Fireman, president and founder of law firm and corporate legal department consultancy Fireman & Co., says those measures will not thrive in a long-term hybrid environment.

“They transitioned inefficient in-office processes to virtual,” he says, adding, “Because law firms have never really put a particular emphasis on using universally accepted tools in an efficient way, those inefficient issues that would be [concealed] with interpersonal actions” will surface.

But adopting the necessary technology and processes isn’t law firms’ biggest hurdle in a hybrid model, law firm CIOs and their tech consultants say. Rather, most firms don’t have a blueprint for developing and maintaining a culture in a hybrid workforce. “You can find a way to make [processes] work if you understand the business requirements,” says Ann Gorr, a legal tech consultant for boutique and midsize law firms. “You got it to work in the two years we couldn’t go into the office. We can always make tech work. It’s maintaining culture that is difficult.”

That will help determine whether hybrid environments are sustainable over the long term—and it could also have repercussions for the next generation of law firm leaders.

More Tech, More Problems

Some proponents of law firms adopting a long-term hybrid model note hybrid working gives staff and lawyers requested flexibility and allows firms to downsize their expensive office leases. But those benefits also have their downsides.

For instance, as real estate expenses decrease, technology overhead is likely to increase. “I certainly think the budget for updating equipment is going to stay strong if lawyers are working hybrid,” says Burney Consultants founder Brett Burney. “It’s almost like [lawyers and staffers] have gotten used to it. Now they won’t accept an old, outdated software platform. They are going to need the latest and greatest to get their work done.”

Instead of law firms rolling out new laptops or other electronics every three years, that frequency will likely increase, Burney adds. “From an IT budgetary standpoint, it will be a major focus,” he says.

Law firms, however, appear receptive to spending more on tech. According to a Thomson Reuters Peer Monitor Index report released in February, law firms’ tech expenses increased 5.8% in the fourth quarter of 2021. This tech enthusiasm not only included spending more, but also being more willing to automate inefficient manual processes and drive tech adoption, notes Reed Smith chief information officer Steven Agnoli.

Beyond budget drawbacks, Agnoli notes that increased flexibility also creates challenges when attempting to replicate everyday office interactions, such as managing software and hardware. “When you don’t have people coming into an office regularly, some of the deployment processes designed [for] being able to see someone and grab their equipment and update their software … need to be adjusted because those folks may need those services,” he explains.

Without direct physical access to IT, a secretary or paralegal, lawyers and staff may take software troubleshooting into their own inexperienced hands, Fireman adds. “The self-serve model became much more important, but that’s where the attorneys—particularly—were left up to their own devices in ways they weren’t properly trained for. That introduces risk,” Fireman says.

He adds, “Before the pandemic we used to say this about document management all the time: If your users are ignoring the document management system, they’re introducing significant risks. You add a multiplier to it when people are working remotely, and that represents a real risk factor.”

Information Governance’s Moment?

Bad habits that some lawyers and staff formed while working remotely have followed them back into the office and created data governance headaches in a hybrid workflow. For instance, lawyers may contravene the firm’s information governance policies by keeping physical copies of documents in their home office, emailing law firm documents to personal accounts or texting with clients, Fireman notes. “Material gaps need to be filled if firms are going to have a permanent hybrid [workforce],” he says.

Some firms are proactively addressing the issues created or accelerated by remote working. The hybrid work arrangement, for example, forced Gorr’s boutique and midsize law firm clients to increase their cybersecurity focus and ensure adherence to the firm’s information governance policies. “They started, more seriously, talking about information governance, what you could or couldn’t do from a cybersecurity and IT perspective. It forced people to get their houses in order because when they were all in the same [office], it was easy to govern that,” Gorr says.

More law firms are also finally adopting project management tools to keep track of their teams’ cases instead of only sending emails, Burney adds. “I’ve even seen some folks, not too many firms, implementing project or task management tools,” he says. “Many businesses, in the real world outside of the legal world, have been using these tools for decades, but the legal industry has had hesitancy.”

Indeed, Microsoft Project, Casemap and other task management software are gaining incremental traction in the legal industry. According to the American Bar Association’s Legal Technology Survey Report released in November 2021, 31% of respondents said project management software was available in their firm in 2021, a slight uptick from 2020′s 27%.

Reimagining Law Firm Culture

Coordinating face time with partners or other firm leaders is an essential part of team building and professional development in firms. But how to best develop associates in a hybrid environment is a new conundrum most firms are still trying to figure out.

“From a culture [standpoint] that may be where some of the suffering came in, just with the fact that we still work in a profession that is mostly on a kind of apprentice model,” Burney notes. He adds, “I think people are adjusting to that, but that’s going to be an issue. That’s a lot harder to quantify from a problem standpoint because we may not see the fallout for a while.”

Some law firm leaders already see a difference in associate classes, Gorr says. “You’ll hear this lament: ‘First-years aren’t getting the mentorship they need,’ and that’s true,” she says. Gorr adds that developing associates in a hybrid environment and determining how much in-person and remote work is beneficial is a new frontier for most firms. “Every firm seems to have their own culture and [hybrid] is a big new thing. They aren’t sure how to navigate this and no one really has the answer,” she says.

While lawyer development may have been an unforeseen casualty of remote working in 2020, associates don’t seem willing to give up that flexibility. According to last year’s Midlevel Associates Survey of nearly 4,000 associates from 77 Am Law 200 firms, 78% preferred a hybrid work schedule.

In a competitive job market, outright or subtly mandating a return to the office five days a week may prove futile or spur attrition. Instead, firms must reimagine the “new normal” for lawyer development, says Ballard Spahr chief information officer Robert Holloway. And emerging technology could play a role in creating a great lawyer in a hybrid work environment, he adds.

“The videoconferencing technology continues to get better,” he says. “I don’t know if [the] metaverse will be something we use, but as that technology matures and makes being on a video call more real, it minimizes the need for face-to-face contact but continues to foster that communication that is required to function in any environment.”

But even with better remote technologies, going into the office should be valued as an opportunity for brainstorming and idea generation that Zoom calls can’t replicate, Fireman says. “Culturally, I think when people are in the office [there] will be more collaboration, and in my dream world, contribute to the serendipitous discovery of new ideas and innovation that are difficult to obtain in a linear conversation in a video where the conversation is laid out,” Fireman says.

Such a situation could be ideal, if they can get into the office. Baker & McKenzie’s Surowiec notes coordinating in-office meetings with a hybrid workforce hasn’t been easy. “Lawyers tend to work in cohorts [and] people want to know when a partner is coming in,” Surowiec notes. Coordinating schedules “is not working as seamlessly as it ultimately can, but I think the teams are getting better about communicating when they need to come in and work together.”

It’s not a foregone conclusion that hybrid workflows will inhibit firm culture. It’s the early days for this model, and there are a lot of unknowns about where it will all lead. But attorneys’ worries about a hybrid environment shouldn’t come as a surprise in an industry that historically hasn’t had to deal with many widespread, long-term disruptions.

“The legal profession reveres precedent. We have been working the same way for many, many years,” Burney notes. “From a cultural component I find many lawyers are not accepting that it will not go back to the way it was.”