- In 2020, working from home (‘WFH’) quickly became a necessary response to the COVID-19 pandemic, thereby giving rise to a global experiment in the conduct of legal practice.
- WFH has been seen as a promising development that gives lawyers greater flexibility and supports new business models. It also provides a new way of engaging with clients and allows lawyers to be more responsive to client needs.
- WFH has, however, given rise to concerns about impacts on mental health and professional development opportunities that could be harmful to lawyers, especially newer members of the legal profession.
Business shut downs, border closures and social distancing in response to the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic have given rise to the widespread practice of working from home or the text-based shorthand ‘WFH’. Prior to the pandemic, the idea of lawyers working from the dining room table or a spare room, including appearing in online courts, would have been absurd. In fact, it would probably have prompted the other texting acronym, ‘WTF’! Yet the absurd has become the ordinary, indeed, the rational response to the pandemic.
However, WFH is still a technological and social experiment for lawyers and society in general. It offers advantages previously only obtainable by the few, but it also raises concerns that need careful attention.
In 2017 one of the most important findings of the Law Society’s Future of Law and Innovation in the Profession (‘FLIP’) report was the multitude of approaches to offering legal services that were developing. A common theme in relation to many of those models was remote working. In a COVID-19 world this has been fully embraced, by necessity for the most part, through the move to working from home. When an estimated 2.6 billion people – or a third of the world’s population – found themselves living under some kind of lockdown or quarantine by March this year, WFH soon became a necessity around the world. (Mia Jankowicz, ‘More People Are Now in “Lockdown” than Were Alive During World War II’, Business Insider, 25 March 2020, 25).
Remote working is prized for the flexibility it affords lawyers, its ability to cut or end travel time, to reduce office overheads and end the ‘tyranny of distance’. Lawyers can choose when and where they work, subject of course to employer and client needs. More hours can be devoted to doing productive work rather than sitting in a car, bus or train. Alternatively, those time savings can allow for time with family or for recreation. Commercial office space can be replaced or downsized. It also means that the client can be anywhere. Depending on the type of law practised and having the necessary bar admissions, a lawyer could offer their services in multiple jurisdictions without needing to be physically there.
These advantages were experienced by the many, rather than the previous few, engendering greater discussion about how a lawyer could practice. WFH did not just change the physical view, it prompted a change of point of view.