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Working Remotely as a Lawyer

In insight / By Charles Christian / 29 November 2019

Floods of ‘Biblical proportions’ in South Yorkshire, commuter chaos on autumnal mornings because of the ‘wrong sort of leaves’ on rail tracks, rail-strikes in the run-up to Christmas, and that’s before we have the snow-storms, ice and ‘Beasts from the East’ in January and February. Yes, it’s the start of another winter in the UK where there's a good chance that on some days many of your staff will be unable to get into the office at all. Even those that do make it in will be so shattered by the experience that no work will be started before 11am and by mid-afternoon they’ll be preoccupied wondering how they’ll get home again.

It’s at times like this that both staff and management start asking whether people could work from home on days when commuting is not viable. Ah… the joys of ‘telecommuting’ as it used to be called – a concept some law firms swear by and others swear at. So does it work or does it not? And are the issues technological or cultural?

Technology and Remote Working

Let’s start with the tech… It's certainly true that in the early days, telecommuting was compromised by technical issues and not just in terms of there being no broadband infrastructure with the only comms channels being dial-up modems or ludicrously over-priced ISDN, but also the inadequacy of the software that law firms were running.

For example, if you wanted to work on a document at home, you'd have to take a copy of it from the system in the office and either load it onto a laptop or a CD. Then, when you returned to the office, you'd have to ensure there had been no changes made to the ‘master’ copy on the office system in your absence (say because a colleague had also been working on it) and then either over-write the master or consolidate and synchronise the two versions. It’s hard to comprehend how relatively primitive technology was 20 to 25 years ago, but you couldn’t even guarantee the synchronisation of emails received on different devices in different locations!

All these technological issues have now been resolved. In the age of high-speed broadband, collaborative working, modern document management systems and modern email, saying “computer says no” is no longer a valid excuse for not embracing remote working. Large international practices have been doing it for the best part of 20 years, enabling their staff to access their messages and files whether they're in Manchester or Maracaibo. Even accountants have firmly embraced remote working, albeit partly out of necessity, as their staff are frequently working out of the office for prolonged periods conducting audits at clients' premises. Similarly, barristers and many small legal firms have also long embraced remote working because they're frequently trapped in Crown, County and Magistrates Courts waiting for their cases to be called.

Culture and Remote Working

So why do some law firms still resist calls to embrace remote working? The answer is culture.

Some members of senior management still don’t trust their staff and believe they'll take advantage of being out of the office to skive off work. Presumably sitting around all morning in their pyjamas watching TV before spending the afternoon in the pub drinking.

It may be true that some people are cheeky enough to do this. However, the pressures on fee-earners and partners to meet their billable hours targets, plus the reporting software built into modern office software whether it’s word-processing, digital dictation, time recording or another means of monitoring - staff have every incentive not to skive, as management have the tools to monitor whether or not they are actually skiving.

Resistance to remote working is a cultural issue and as I shall be explaining in my next article, law firm ‘culture’ remains the missing link in most law office automation projects.

Incidentally, if you still need convincing, remote working can also help on those occasions when someone is sick enough to be unable to get into the office (say with a broken leg, an occupational hazard for lawyers who go skiing in the winter) or is unwelcome in the office (thanks to the flu or some other bug picked up from their kids), but is still willing and able to work. Remote working offers a lifeline to female employees who are on maternity leave too, when they don’t want to abandon their clients and/or get out of the loop with their careers.

If you’d like more information on how you can securely implement remote working practices in your law firm, contact us today.

Charles Christian

Charles Christian

Charles is a former barrister and Reuters correspondent turned writer and the founder of the Legal IT Insider newsletter, website and resource.

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