While Covid continues to create considerable business uncertainty, law firms and their clients grapple with the huge question of returning (or not) to the office. Discussions centre on hybrid working – in which lawyers and business employees work some for the week from home and the rest from the office – and whether it will become the mainstay of the future workplace.

But decision-making is fraught with difficulty. In theory, a hybrid future offers the flexibility that many employees have long been looking for, while firms could make cost savings on office space and recruit more talent across different locations.

But there are huge complexities to unravel to make a firm-wide hybrid solution work: ensuring consistency of management; managing recruitment and induction processes (and agreeing future hiring strategies); good training and development; avoiding discrimination; maintaining culture and nurturing a sense of togetherness; and handling a host of practicalities including the logistics of virtual versus face-to-face meetings.

In many ways, the situation facing firms now is far more complex than anything firms had to face in the first lockdown when all offices suddenly had to shut.  At least everyone was in the same boat back then.  So how are firms planning their next steps? And how does recruitment fit into the picture?

Split thinking

At present there are two approaches emerging. On the one side are the many firms actively planning a hybrid workplace. Norton Rose Fulbright, Eversheds, Taylor Wessing and Simmons and Simmons are among those going hybrid, with some, like CMS, continuing flexible processes that began long before Covid.

But there have been more surprising announcements from some of the leading UK City practices – Clifford Chance, Linklaters and Freshfields are among those that have announced that lawyers, trainees and business professionals will be allowed to work from home up to 50% of the time post-pandemic.

Others think it is too early to say or are still surveying staff and processing views. In addition, announcements that arrangements will need to adapt with time, or take into account ‘client and business commitments’, may indicate hybrid solutions that are a short-term necessity rather than long-term policy.

But there’s no doubt some are seriously revising their working conditions more permanently – take Clyde and Co, which is planning a hybrid model that includes vacating one of its two London offices, eliminating 82,574 square feet office space. Potential cost-savings are one of the big draws of a hybrid approach – with some firms also making voluntary redundancies among support staff in recent weeks. The fact that firms continued to perform well over the past year – despite everyone working from home – will only bolster confidence that hybrid is both manageable and profitable in the long term.

On the other side of the hybriders, however, are those firms that anticipate a return to pre-Covid full-time office normality – particularly likely among the largest US firms and financial institutions.

US law firms such as Latham & Watkins and Weil Gotshal & Manges are among those looking forward to re-establishing the regular routine of office life. For them, working from home was a solution to a crisis, not the norm. Both recently told staff they expect them back in the office in autumn.

Ultimately, no one size is likely to fit all. Firms operating at either end of the spectrum – either office-centric or fully-flexible – will likely find the decision making easier than those caught in between. Those in the middle will now have difficult choices to make over the direction and future identity of their firms.

The recruitment viewpoint

Such planning will also need to factor in the significant impact of workplace changes on recruitment. With firms moving to hybrid models, those candidates seeking flexibility will have more choice. Likewise, firms operating hybrid models will have a powerful tool to attract (and retain) future talent.

But this won’t stop those seeking top salaries and a more traditional office vibe – firms offering these will appeal to a different type of candidate. The result could well be a more interesting and differentiated market going forwards.

The changes go further though. Covid shook up recruitment processes. As recruiters in the first lockdown, we didn’t know how we were going to cope with working from home; our relationships were built on frequently meeting clients and introducing them to candidates in person. The biggest surprise, therefore, was how well recruitment processes could be managed during long periods of remote working.

Candidates and firms were very willing to meet each other online. There were suddenly no problems with availability or concerns over time that would be needed to travel to and from interviews. Also, in the early stages of a recruitment process, it quickly became apparent that prospective candidates were far more comfortable taking an initial virtual meeting, as opposed to taking the risk of being seen having a coffee with a competitor in a hotel lobby or be seen going to their office wearing their best suit. It’s unlikely that future processes will remain completely virtual (candidate partners considering a new firm are making a huge decision, which is more difficult without some level of face-to-face interaction). But a hybrid world could allow firms and candidates to engage in many more virtual interviews in the initial stages, before agreeing the most important in-person meetings later on.

The changes could also radically alter perceptions of where firms source talent. A case in point – a handful of US firms have been seeking talented candidates in Leeds and Manchester but offering US salaries. In a world of hybrid working, how close to any one office does a great candidate really need to be?

Risks and opportunities

There is still much to consider as firms finalise their future working policies. And it gets more complicated the further ahead firms try to plan. An important consideration with hybrid working, for example, is how firms will ensure that everyone is treated fairly, if some are working from home more than others.

Women and those with disabilities may be particularly disenfranchised in this situation. Females are more likely to seek home working (recent research found that 69% of mothers want to work from home at least once a week compared to 56% of fathers), but may then get overlooked for promotion because they are not as visible as those still in the office. Firms will need to be mindful that a hybrid future is a fair and diverse one for all.

Equally, more junior lawyers and business professionals will need good training and mentoring – as well as the learning that comes from being physically in an office, immersed in the culture and subject to so many different conversations. Ensuring that hybrid working continues to offer everyone office opportunities – coordinating get-togethers, training and meetings on days when everyone is in, for example – will be critical for long term success. This will require a whole new level of people management, especially in firms where office space has been cut.

On the other side, those firms that revert to a more traditional office culture will need to be careful that they do not lose talent to other firms that offer flexibility. Salary remains a big sell in certain firms and practice areas, but even the heavyweight firms will need to present their case for ‘business as normal’ when so many will feel that everything has changed.

Firms need to be clear and adapt quickly. It doesn’t mean they have to know everything just now – so much is still in flux – but firms need to have their vision set on a strategy that authentically reflects their culture and purpose. They need good communication that explains thinking, resolves concerns and inspires belief. This is what will attract and retain the talent that will take firms forwards.

Among the many choices presented by a post-Covid era, clarity as well as flexibility will be key.

By Jonathan Fort, Director, Fox Rodney

Jonathan Fort
T: +44 (0)20 7337 2703
E: jfort@foxrodney.com