During the Height of the Covid Pandemic, many law firms across the country became 100% remotely operational. Thanks to high-speed internet, digital capabilities, paperless document systems, platforms like Zoom and DocuSign- law firms realized they could remain highly functional and productive while operating remotely.   

So, here’s the Big Question to Ask Yourself- Should I continue to operate remotely or in a remote/hybrid in the future- even when Covid is no longer an issue?  

We now know that a law firm doesn’t “need” everyone sitting in their office cubicles and meeting in literal conference rooms in order to get the work done.  

 Law firms can remain functional and operational in a remote model, with most if not all your employees working from home- but should we continue doing so? 

What are the Pros and Cons?  

HARVARD STUDY- For the past 5 years (well before Covid-19), Harvard Business School Associate Professor Prithwiraj Choudhury started studying a number of companies that implemented WFH (Work from Home) or WFA (Work from Anywhere) into their long-term business models. His study included organizations such as TCS, Zapier, and even the United States Patent and Trademark Office, who alone has several thousand employees working remotely.

THREE BIG BENEFITS with REMOTE OPERATIONS: Dr. Choudhury’s research uncovered a number of benefits to both business entities as well as individual employees. 

EMPLOYER BENEFITS:

  1. increased employee productivity, 
  2. decreased real estate/overhead costs and 
  3. hugely increased potential talent pool for new hires

 EMPLOYEE BENEFITS: 

  1. increased quality of life, 
  2. better work-life balance, and
  3. financial benefits like the flexibility to live in other locations where the cost of living is lower and eliminating commute expenses.    

Choudhury also notes that “Millennials seemed captivated by the idea that working from anywhere would allow them to become ‘digital nomads,’ traveling the world while still employed.” (Choudhury, “Our Work From Anywhere Future,” Harvard-Business Review, Nov/Dec. 2020) 

But how do these benefits translate to the law firm setting?  

*Lower Your Real Estate Overhead– 

If you can maintain a number of your employees in a WFH capacity, you will definitely be able to reduce the needed office space/overhead expenses of maintaining a full office.

*Make Hiring Super Talented Employees Easier   

Hiring talented A-team players has always been a challenge for most law firms- Making the decision to hire remote employees means increasing the potential candidate pool exponentially. 

You are no longer stuck trying to find the best employees from those available in your backyard- Now the whole country- or globe is a hiring option- This can prove to be a huge benefit for law firm owners.

But what about productivity?    Prior to COVID-19, many law firms were reluctant to allow employee WFH arrangements out of concerns about the risk for decreased employee productivity.  

Ken Hardison- founder and president of PILMMA- has worked with many law firms who were forced to take their firms remote during the pandemic. I asked Ken to weigh in on the remote productivity results PILMMA members have experienced since the pandemic started. For most firms, about one-third of the employees have been even MORE productive since working from home! However, another one-third have been less productive than when working in the office, and the remaining one-third have remained at the same level of productivity, regardless of whether they were working from the home or office.

Given these mixed productivity results, creating a hybrid-business model that allows your most productive at-home employees to remain remote, while bringing the less productive ones back into the office could give your firm the best of both worlds.  

THE CONS/CHALLENGES TO SUSTAINED REMOTE EMPLOYEES: Despite the clear advantages to incorporating Remote Employee positions into your Permanent Business model, there are some downsides too.

*Communication can be more difficult.  

*Collaborative teamwork is more difficult. 

*Shadow training, personal mentoring, visual supervision, and the employee socialization that strengthens teams is made more difficult.

Fortunately, there are Best Practices that you can put in place to overcome these challenges.

BEST PRACTICES FOR REMOTE LAW FIRM MANAGEMENT 

THE THREE C’S: These Best Practices as broken down into the Three C’s: Communication, Culture, and Camaraderie.

COMMUNICATION IS KEY: While communication is critical in any successful law firm, it is even more so when you and/or your staff are working remotely. You want everyone on the same page and working together in furtherance of the firm’s common goals.  

The Daily Huddle:  

  • If you have not already done so, start hosting short daily “huddles” – where each employee shares:
  1. their “win” from the day before,
  2. what they are planning to work on today, and 
  3. what, if anything, they are stuck on.

  This meeting should be short, no more than 6-8 minutes.

*If your firm is too large for this to be practical, then have daily huddles with your department heads, and have them conduct subsequent daily huddles with their individual department members.

*Set them for an odd time, such as 9:37 or 8:18- so that everyone is likely to remember them. Conduct them religiously, every single day.  

This simple routine is a powerful means of communication, allowing you to know what is supposed to be happening each day, and keeps all team members aware of how what they are doing fits into the bigger picture. 

It also allows problems to be dealt with quickly, at the start of the day, rather than festering and resulting in a day or two of wasted time. These meetings can be easily held via phone conference or Zoom.

 Weekly & Monthly Firm-Wide/Department Meetings: 

  • Host a longer ZOOM meeting once each week as well as a monthly meeting. This is when you can take the time to
  1. obtain 3direct feedback from team members
  2. discuss new ideas,
  3. troubleshoot, and
  4. engage in collaborative problem-solving.

*The Zoom format ensures everyone has virtual “face time” with one another, thereby strengthening the sense of “team.”

*Make them In-Person when you Can: Although you can accomplish a great deal via audio conferencing and Zoom Meetings, you should still strive for regular In-Person Meetings weekly, monthly, or quarterly.  

There is no substitute for the bonding that occurs when the entire team can come together in one place, collaborate, socialize- and absorb the personalities, non-verbal cues, and so forth from the other team members.  

Establish concrete Processes/Procedures: 

When you have Remote employees, they can’t physically shadow one of your top staff members to learn the ropes. Thus, it’s important that you have your firm’s processes and procedures up to date and memorialized so that all employees, and specifically new employees, can clearly see what they are supposed to be doing, step by step. 

It is also a good idea to assign an actual mentor- a more experienced employee in their department – that is “on-call” to reach out to new employees regularly. That way, new hires can get quick answers and advice as they are learning their position.

CULTURE/CORE VALUES: While it is more challenging to create your FIRM Culture when you are not all in one place together, you can do so with concerted effort and some creativity.  

For example, at the start of each weekly Zoom meeting, identify and discuss one of your Core Values. Let it be a theme for the month, reiterating it in the daily or weekly meetings.  

Make a Point to acknowledge any employee who has exemplified these core values during the last week. 

Ask for feedback/suggestions from your staff as to how your firm can better implement these values. 

Create a system for encouraging and receiving employee suggestions- in these key areas:

  1. how to make the firm money,
  2. how to save the firm money, 
  3. how to save the firm time, and 
  4. how to market the firm. 

Acknowledge the suggestions and reward employees when their suggestions are implemented in the firm. 

Remember, whenever we feel our contributions matter, we are all more likely to be vested, to try our best, and to feel increased job satisfaction; It’s just human nature. 

CAMARADERIE

One of the biggest things we lose when we work remotely is a sense of fellowship and socialization with our colleagues and coworkers. Conducting conference calls and Zoom meetings will help, of course. However, those are somewhat formal in nature, and you want your team to genuinely get to know each other and appreciate one another.

*Set up a virtual bulletin board, where staff members are encouraged to share pics of their kids, their pets, their home, garden, etc.   

*Designate crazy hat day or t-shirt day and encourage everyone to wear them on the firm Zoom calls- 

*Encourage employees to jump on the conference calls or Zoom meetings a few minutes early for conversation/socializing.

*Designate special Zoom lunches where employees just hang out together.

There are many ways to create community and foster relationships once you begin to look for them. 

Some businesses have found that the benefits of a remote or remote-hybrid model are so substantial that they will be making it permanent, even after Covid-19. (Twitter, Facebook, Shopify, Siemens, to name a few. Id.)

The bottom line for law firms is this- There are both pros and cons to continuing to hire remote or semi-remote employees long term. You may decide that having a nation-wide talent pool to draw from when hiring new employees is highly desirable- or that decreasing your firm’s physical real estate expenses and overhead is a savings too significant to pass up- or that a number of your employees have been far more productive working from home than they were in the office. 

For whatever the reasons you consider making remote work a permanent fixture in your firm, the foregoing Best Practices will help you make those efforts rewarding and successful.