In the early days of lockdown, The Lawyer ran a major survey on the legal sector’s reaction to the developing crisis. The questions were wide-ranging, covering topics as diverse as how people felt their firms were coping to what they were doing to keep fit at home.

Events have moved swiftly. Since the survey closed, furloughing in law firms has taken place en masse across the country and partners are having profits withheld.

However, the 1,966 legal sector workers who responded to the survey have a great deal to say on how firms reacted in the first instance, the technology being used, and what the new normal will be like once this is all over.

Partners are willing to step up

Law firm partners didn’t get an entirely good reputation for themselves during the last crisis to hit the profession. In the 2008 financial crisis, redundancies were numerous. Sometimes such cuts are necessary in business, but the general view was (though maybe not among City partnerships themselves) that the 2008-10 layoffs were overly vicious – more about preserving profits for a handful of individuals than keeping firms afloat.

Our survey suggests attitudes among partners may have changed. This time around the overwhelming majority of partners said they would be willing to take a cut in pay if it meant jobs at the firm could be saved. Some 86.8 per cent said they would accept a cut in pay if it meant that no redundancies at their organisation would be necessary.

Circumstances are different now than in 2008. It may be that partners see less need for redundancies this time round. They may also have learned that it costs more in the long run to rebuild teams decimated by cuts than to make those cuts in the first place. They may also care more about reputational damage this time round, and their firms may be in better financial shape – or they may simply be holding fire on cuts for now.

Technology

Firms upgraded their IT – and not a moment too soon. A recurring theme of our interviews with law firm leaders over the past couple of years has been that firms have been investing in upgrading their IT systems and infrastructure. It is usually nuts and bolts stuff: too dull to make the news but involving a significant financial outlay nonetheless. The story that Michelmores managing partner Tim Richards told The Lawyer is typical: “We spent two years investing in infrastructure and nailing down the process of getting the network working properly. That is our good fortune: if this had happened in 2018 we would have had a bit of an issue.”

There have been stories circulating of firms caught on the hop without enough laptops to go around, and some of these are indeed true. Overall, however, firms are generally on the ball. Some 79 per cent of respondents are primarily using a work laptop rather than their own personal one; however this figure is skewed by the inclusion of barristers, who overwhelmingly use their own device. More than 80 per cent of law firm workers are using their employers’ computers and some 37 per cent of survey respondents said the switch to working from home was “seamless”. Most of the rest found it relatively smooth, with only 9 per cent saying it was bumpy and just 1 per cent deeming it a “nightmare”.

Furthermore, only 6.6 per cent of all respondents said it had been somewhat or very difficult to communicate with their team during the lockdown, with that figure rising to 8.5 per cent when it came to communication with clients.

The majority of law firm workers are currently participating in between one and five internal videoconference calls per day – with only around 8 per cent of respondents being called into more meetings than that. Far fewer are making external calls: partners, naturally, are involved in more of those than other members of the firm.

Zoom, an obscure piece of software at the start of this year, is now the most-used videoconferencing technology by law firm teams looking to keep in touch with each other. Microsoft Teams and Skype are also now well-used, with a host of other applications also employed to a lesser extent.

The transition may have been mostly smooth, but tech challenges still exist. Many firms have given employees an allowance to buy their own kit to help them work from home. Respondents from Addleshaw Goddard and Clifford Chance said they have been given a £200 budget; at Reed Smith, RPC and Stephenson Harwood the amount is £150, and at White & Case $250 (£203).

Not everyone has been so generous: a lawyer at a large international firm wrote: “I already had a laptop and mobile; nothing else has been provided. I had to buy my secretary a laptop personally as the firm refused to provide her with one or pay for one.

And an employee at one US firm in London complained: “While all fee-earners had laptops anyway, non-fee-earners have not been given any hardware. They are able to access systems via remote Virtual Private Networks (VPNs), their life has been made much harder, and a lot of them feel like they cannot do their jobs properly. Before the lockdown began, after a team member asked management for permission, lawyers stripped their offices of monitors and docking stations to take home, catching cabs home with bags full of tech. This was only thought about when a junior lawyer asked if it was okay – the management hadn’t even thought about it.”

Even when firms provide help, issues do remain. The four most common problems cited by survey respondents were connecting to the internet or their organisation’s VPN; the slowness of the internet when connected; the lack of ability to scan or print in bulk; and only having one screen – the lack of extra monitors, though a small problem in the grand scheme of things, does make lawyers’ lives significantly harder.

The other main tech challenge? Other people. While a few respondents bemoaned their own lack of IT skills, the incompetence of others – mainly more senior lawyers – was a stronger recurring theme. One mid-level associate said her biggest tech issue was “partners who live in the countryside with terrible internet”. 

A senior associate at a boutique firm concurred: “There are some who are tech-savvy and able to keep up, but there are a number of others who have never embraced it and now face a real challenge to get up to speed and remain at the same level.

Another added: “I am glad this is making some of my less technically proficient colleagues realise that relying on paper copies of documents, and secretaries to run around for them, is a practice that went out with the Ark.” And one can only sympathise with the IT professional who said their biggest tech challenge had been “getting users to understand why it’s important. I think they may start to understand now.

It’s no surprise, therefore, that when asked what new work-related skills legal sector professionals would most like to learn post-lockdown, greater IT capability was by far the most common response, ranging from basic Excel proficiency to learning how to code. Other frequent replies, however, included personal time management and motivation, and how to manage teams, especially remotely.

Working from home

Within law firms there is a fairly even split between people who think they are working hard, those who think they are working less and those who notice no difference. However, a considerable proportion of those working less said that this was because of work drying up rather than because of the difficulties of working from home itself.

Difficulties exist, however. There are tech challenges, but more respondents cited the psychological issues: the blurring of lines between work and home life, the lack of human interactions and office camaraderie, the juggling of work with childcare and the proximity of the fridge were all downsides that were commonly raised. While more than half of respondents expressed a desire to work from home to a certain extent in future, it is significant that only 8 per cent said they would want to work mainly from home, while 37 per cent said they would like to remain largely office-based.

We asked what online resources people were using to get themselves through lockdown. One respondent noted: “I don’t use any. As a mental health aid I am avoiding all that. It is generally a time and energy suck for no real return – far better to read a book, talk to my family or exercise.” 

In the main, however, respondents have primarily turned to YouTube and Instagram for their wellbeing needs in lockdown, with popular figures like Joe Wicks looming large.

Questions about what firms had introduced to support employees’ mental health received a mixed response. Many answers indicated that firms already had systems in place – a significant advance from the findings of The Lawyer’s 2014 stress survey.

As for new initiatives, Eversheds Sutherland has brought in “a Ministry of Support,” a senior associate said, “to provide moral support and access to professional support, pastoral support and various initiatives for encourage socialising as far as possible and insights into the lives of the partners and people around the firm.” At DAC Beachcroft, a paralegal noted, “workplace groups entitled ‘Not Home Alone’ have been set up to keep in contact and share stories.”

Our firm has continued to progress its #StoptheStigma campaign,” said a Reed Smith junior associate, “as well as suggesting resources to read and approaches to take to our at-home routines.

They are encouraging social calls, set up virtual quizzes and drinks and Easter competitions that involve children to help everyone stay occupied. They are also issuing daily tips and reaching out to specific communities (such as LGBTQ) to ensure these people are not isolated at this time,” a junior employee at Addleshaw Goddard said.”


Commonly-cited online tools being used by legal sector professionals in lockdown

  • Joe Wicks PE lessons (fitness)
  • Les Mills on Demand (fitness)
  • Couch to 5k (fitness app)
  • DownDog (Yoga)
  • TLDR News – a new YouTube channel (news)
  • CityParents (work-life balance networking app)

A partner at a regional firm appreciated that “the managing partner has taken the time to speak to all people in the firm – our size permits that but it has been highly effective and resonates with everyone!

Hogan Lovells is doing a “smile for the day email chain” and there are a whole host of similar social bits and pieces taking place across the profession. And a US firm has even conducted “a Q&A with the firm epidemiologist.

At the other end of the scale, employees feel some firms have done “very little” .“We have reminded our employees of the support available to them, but there is nothing for the partners,” a partner at an international firm mused.

And, of course, not everyone appreciates the efforts firms are putting in. “Utter overkill on mindfulness et al,” a BD professional at a large international firm griped. “A bottle of port would be more use.

People management: you’re smashing it

While there was no shortage of grumbles, the survey reveals that overall – in the early days at least – most law firm employees are very happy with how their firm responded to the crisis, though many firms have since begun to introduce furloughing and other cost-saving measures, which may have changed the picture somewhat.

Out of non-partner lawyers and other employees working in private practice commercial law firms, 70 per cent rated their firm’s overall response to the crisis as eight out of 10 or above. Only 9 per cent rated their firm’s response five out of 10 or below.

I would imagine there will be an exodus from the firms that have treated staff poorly after this all ends,” wrote one junior associate at a listed firm, but such comments were in the minority.

I think generally most firms have adapted well and taken a friendlier, more understanding approach to each other within litigation. There’s been a bit more cooperation and a bit less hostility, which is welcome,” said a junior associate in a UK regional firm.

A mid-level associate at Herbert Smith Freehills thought: “Overall, I would say they have been excellent, and definitely deserve praise. They have quietly handled (and prepared for) the crisis extremely well.

A CMS senior associate concurred: “The firm has been great – more than I could have hoped for. It has restored my faith in private practice so far and I feel so grateful for some sense of job security – I am very fortunate in comparison to so many other people in the world right now.

I am genuinely impressed with my organisation’s approach,” an Ashurst employee said, and “I thought it was crazy when Reed Smith was one of the first firms to shut the office. Now I think it was a very prudent, brave move and I’m proud of the firm,” said a trainee working there.

What more can firms do? “Survive” and “keep communicating,” were the most frequent responses. Associates are crying out for “clarity” and “reassurances” about job security, words that came up again and again.

The big picture

There are arguments to be made about whether some of the world’s most profitable law firms should really be taking government money, but furloughing is clearly a sensible move in certain circumstances. But to what extent are jobs really at risk?

The responses to our coronavirus survey suggest that law firm workers remain mostly confident mass redundancies of the sort seen in the last recession will not occur – though of course the survey closed before those furloughing floodgates opened. Events can move fast and opinions change quickly.

As you would expect, partners are more in the loop than employees when it comes to redundancy news and it is encouraging that it is only a minority who have been told cuts will be needed.

What about the very survival of firms? Does the coronavirus pose an existential threat? They may yet be proved wrong, but our readers remain bullish. Spare a thought, though, for those working on the high street. It seems likely that these are the solicitors who will find life hardest of all in the weeks and months to come.

We have all been told that the world will never be the same, but seven out of 10 people working in law firms think that after the pandemic is over, their working lives will return to more or less the same as before, perhaps with a greater acceptance of working from home.

The cultural undertones of the firm are highly ingrained,” says one magic circle associate. “While we have fast-forwarded some core IT projects (hello Teams!), I would anticipate rolling back into the same old formula when we return to the office.

A business development professional at a large international player agreed: “I think people have relatively short memories and, in general, things do return to normal. Perhaps it will help those that wish to WFH more and will speed up the introduction of more technology to support that, but I don’t think you fundamentally change the way people are wired and how they behave over a period of time.

Another employee at a large international concurs: “In the grand scheme of things, people forget what has happened in the past and want to return to their normal routines. I have no reason to believe that this will be any different.” Oh brave new world…

Vox populi: what future for the legal profession now?

“Law firms need to show they can be as flexible as the NHS. Many law firms are still too rigid in their team structures, and it would benefit all lawyers and clients if we developed more abilities in other areas and show we are not simply box specialists.”Senior associate, regional law firm

“The Bar is particularly vulnerable as we are all self-employed. Many female practitioners are struggling as their partners are expected to work full-time from home so they do not have their usual support in terms of childcare, grandparents or household support. A lot of female practitioners are juggling work deadlines by working late into the evenings so that they can look after children during the day. We need all employers to realise all of their staff (male as well as female) have to juggle family responsibilities as well not assume that the wife will be there to facilitate their partner’s work over theirs.”Barrister, commercial chambers

“Long term it will be a positive to the extent that societal values improve. I’m no Leftie, being slightly to right of Genghis Khan, but a drift toward an ethically neutral (i.e. amoral) global economy will result in the technology gains becoming exploitative of people. The root cause of the extent of the harm is a pooling of certain functions in a small number of low-cost jurisdictions and an increased disinclination of capital to contribute to the maintenance of society.”Barrister, chambers

“I think it’s remarkable – and encouraging – to see how quickly and effectively we have been able to transition to full-time remote working and to continue to manage the workload effectively. I think we will all very quickly be tired of force majeure-focused marketing, and/or the sort of chirpy ‘keep calm and carry on’ messaging, though it is still early days.

“I think it’s going to be hugely important for firms to identify and embrace all that is good about more widespread remote working, and work hard on the things which are adverse: I think the reality is that past suspicions about how efficient people are when working remotely will be capable of being challenged, but I also think that there is damage to a firm’s culture when people are not together over an extended period (especially when they are all under personal stress in the situation).

“We may find our firms become leaner in terms of real estate and/or personnel at the end of this, and more agile in terms of working location/patterns. We may also find a much bigger adoption of working online in terms of virtual meetings, hearings, etc  – the ‘nudge’ posed by climate change concerns has become a ‘hammer’ in circumstances in which people cannot travel to meet as they have done for many years. Longer term, I suspect that may be the biggest impact as people (both clients and lawyers) question the need to fly.” – Partner, mid-sized London firm