legal sector reluctant to accept remote working

Why is the legal sector reluctant to accept remote working?

Study shows remote working rise across most industries, except amongst law firm firms

Research has revealed that the number of employees returning to office work rather than remote working is not likely to increase, but similar sentiment is not shared amongst law firms.

The Times revealed that occupancy levels in UK offices fell to 29.1% last week from 33.1% the week before, whereas pre-pandemic levels were estimated to be around 70% full. This suggests that the number of workers returning to offices is plateauing and marks a sharp decrease in office use.

Does the same apply to law firms?

There is a reluctance amongst some law firms to adopt a remote working. One of the main sticking points for firms is the claim that practitioners need to be in office to collaborate with other lawyers when working on a case. Other issues are difficulty in developing trainees,  isolation of workers, and communication issues and lost time because of this.

Stephenson Harwood earlier this year went as far as stating it would cut salaries by 20% should lawyers and staff choose to work from home permanently. A spokesperson for the firm justified the decision as they said:

“Like many law firms, and other businesses, we have made no secret of the fact that we see value in being back in the office regularly – from the positive impact on workplace culture and teamwork, to the training opportunities it provides. We also recognise the importance of flexibility; that’s why we have introduced a hybrid working policy which gives our people the option to work remotely for up to 40% of the time, and salaries remain the same.”

This was greeted negatively by some lawyers at the firm, one of whom stated:

“It doesn’t feel right that there will be a 20% difference in pay for a colleague who is at the same level as me and billing the same amount but who doesn’t have the commute or family duties. If I decide to commute to the office to secure the full pay it will mean I will be less productive at work and it will cost more to the firm in salary and overheads.”

This reluctance is despite evidence that staff at firms overwhelmingly support remote working, such as one staff survey from national firm Eversheds Sutherland who discovered that 84% of its UK staff had “the same or better ability to develop skills and knowledge while working at home” and 70% of staff said they had concerns about going back into office environments.

A study by Reuters also found that 60% of legal employees would consider leaving their firm for a better work-life balance, while 63% want to work flexible hours compared to 22% pre-pandemic. In addition to this Reuters also found that 86% of lawyers want to work remotely at least one day a week, which was found to be double pre-pandemic levels.

Sara Robinson, principal consultant for public sector legal recruitment at Sellick Partnership, commented on the emergence of remote working as she claimed:

“The coronavirus pandemic has changed the way in which everyone works, and I think it has created a level of trust between employers and employees that maybe wasn’t there pre-pandemic. There is now a huge reliance and desire to work from home and in a flexible manner.”

Despite many firms encouraging their staff to continue coming into the office for work some firms, such as RPC, have allowed all of their lawyers, and trainees, to work where they want. Although, this remains an anomaly within the legal sector.

This may not remain the case for long though as it has emerged that a larger number of firms are becoming more flexible with regards to remote working due to the competitiveness of the job market. The belief among some bosses is that flexibility, rather than wages, has become workers top priority, as shown by this study by Realm Recruit and so in order to attract and retain the best talent some firms may find themselves adapting in order to survive.

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