I have been thinking about what to write for this blog post since the semester began. I have made a long list of topics to discuss and spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about how I would present my ideas in an eloquent way. You would think that all that time and effort would translate to a great work product, but alas, here I am the night before it is due, drinking a glass of wine, and struggling to piece together a coherent piece of writing. Essentially, I have thrown a bunch of thoughts onto the page… hopefully something sticks.
The practice of law is very people-centric. On any given day, you may interact with clients, your colleagues, or folks at the courthouse. If you work at a large firm, you may attend a plethora of social events in addition to drinks every Friday. Law students going through recruitment are inundated with hands to shake and people to impress. But COVID-19 has completely changed many of the social aspects of the legal profession. While some of the changes were welcomed (flexible work hours, no commute time, pants optional), the social isolation and added stresses have taken a toll on many. Additionally, firms have had to change the way they do business as they can no longer attract top talent and large clients with fancy dinners and expensive swag.
Before entering law school, I had this preconceived idea that all lawyers were extroverted with large personalities. Knowing a total of zero lawyers, this idea was fueled solely by what I saw in the media. Since coming to law school, I have learned that there are many introverts like myself here. Some are good at presenting as extroverts for discrete periods of time while other have zero desire to do so. This can be a real challenge when navigating the recruitment process, especially for large firms. On top of interviews there are receptions, coffees, lunches, and dinners to attend. It means being constantly “on”. It also may mean that some incredibly talented people are self-selecting out of this process to avoid the social hellfire (maybe some people enjoy it though) that is interview week. The switch to an online recruitment may allow more diverse personalities to succeed in the process and reduce the stress and anxiety associated with it.
A virtual recruit will also level the playing field for smaller firms. Many large firms have a sizable budget dedicated to recruitment of students and associates. This often involves treating people to fancy dinners and sending them home with swag. They also showcase their beautiful and expensive office spaces as an incentive to work there. It is as if to say that all these nice things will make the ridiculously long hours worth it. And honestly, that tactic is probably successful. But this year, it is unlikely that many firms will be willing to incur the risks and liabilities associated with the classic recruitment style, whether they have the budget for it or not. This means that small and medium sized firms, that have a lot to offer students in the way of expertise and mentorship, have a chance to stand out.
Working from home has presented many challenges, but very few of them are because people cannot perform their work tasks from home. The real challenges have been related to the intermingling of work and home life or the social isolation.
Finding a work life balance is a longstanding issue in the legal field that predates COVID-19. However, COVID-19 and the abrupt shift to working from home has exacerbated the issue for many. Some people are now working in a space shared with spouses, children, elderly dependents, roommates, or a combination thereof. These competing interests make working or focusing on work extremely difficult. On the opposite end of the spectrum are the individuals who are living alone. These folks previously relied on the social interactions they would receive by simply going into the office each day. This can create extreme feelings of isolation for some folks, compounding the stress and anxiety they may be feeling from other sources.
Another issue is the lack of separation between work and home. The work-space and the home-space have become one and the previous lines of separation have blurred. Maybe now it is easier to excuse unreasonable hours if they can do it from the comfort of their own bed. Maybe it is easier to get a few more hours of billable work done after dinner because the office is just steps away. It will be up to senior lawyers and firm leaders to ensure that their associates are not working themselves sick and are encouraging them to set healthy boundaries at home.
While some long to get back into the office, there are also many people who are content to keep working from home once the pandemic has passed. For some people, working from home allows them to set more flexible work hours, make more time for self-care, and gives them geographical freedom. A survey released in September 2020 found that 45% of Canadians surveyed would prefer to work from home at least three days a week. What does this mean for law firms? It is now known that in-office, remote, and hybrid set-ups can be implemented successfully, and it is unlikely to return to a strictly in-office set up. Firms will likely have to offer more flexible work arrangements indefinitely. Lawyers may start demanding the flexibility to work from home part-time, given that their practice is amenable to the it. If a firm refuses to offer this flexibility and balance, it is likely the lawyer can find another who will.
Allowing lawyers more autonomy over their “work location choice” may also benefit the firm financially (and what do large firms love more?). Having a mix of lawyers who work from home full-time or only need office space part-time means a reduced need for expensive office spaces. Offices can be shared by multiple lawyers that use the space on different days or they can be converted into collaborative workspaces.
Another challenge for firms is how to maintain client relationships and add value to their services. Large firms with large clients rely on adding value to their services by taking them to exclusive restaurants, golf courses, and sports games. Firms are now having to pivot away from this practice while still ensuring their clients do not feel forgotten or uncared for. At the end of the billing cycle, when the client looks at their bill, will they start to question the high price tag when it doesn’t come with all the bells and whistles? Potentially. To avoid this, the work will need to speak for itself. Producing quality legal work has always been an important aspect of bringing in and retaining high-profile clients, but now to an even greater degree. Additionally, it leaves room for lawyers to be innovative and creative in how they approach client relations.
Connecting virtually may allow for more deep and meaningful connections. Children, pets, and housemates have been making surprise appearances in video chat meetings. Clients and colleagues are seeing into your home, which may not be as picture perfect as office spaces. This is an opportunity to embrace vulnerability and humanity by showcasing our perceived flaws. The fact that someone’s office is now the kitchen table and there is a two year old in the background screaming that they hate their mom’s new haircut (inspired by true events) does not mean that individual is a bad lawyer, it means they are human. We are being presented with an opportunity to laugh together, feel humbled together, and rebuild stronger, together.
Office work could be changed forever by COVID-19. Here’s why that matters, Brandie Weikle, https://www.cbc.ca/news/business/office-workers-home-covid-19-1.5711334
Labour Force Survey, August 2020, Statistics Canada, https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/daily-quotidien/200904/dq200904a-eng.htm
How to Connect with Clients in the Time of COVID-19: 3 Tips, Will Hattman, https://www.searchenginejournal.com/client-connection-tips/373125/#close