July 2, 2021 – Over the next few months, many nonprofit law firms will be faced with the Herculean task of planning a return to their pre-Covid working standards as, hopefully, Covid- 19 goes back in history. But just as Hercules faced his own 12 jobs, nonprofit law firms will need to answer fundamental questions about how lawyers work in the post-Covid era. Here I try to categorize these questions and offer some answers.
What is legal work? In most forms of legal work, the workplace is most often structured like a factory, with employees working hourly rates and clocking in and out. Instead of gadgets, lawyers produce work products: memos, contracts, legal briefs, etc.
The norm is that lawyers have to come to the workplace to do their legal gadgets. A senior lawyer manages several juniors and paralegals, organized on an assembly line, with managers and workers.
The perks come with this brutal system – at least in great law -: high wages, free meals, Ubers to get home, and top-notch offices with a view in the upscale neighborhoods of big cities. Patrick J. Schiltz, “To be a happy, healthy and ethical member of an unhappy, unhealthy and unethical profession”, Vanderbilt Law Review, Vol. 52, Ess. 4 (1999). In nonprofit law firms, the same top-down models are used, but with fewer advantages. Frederick Taylor would be proud.
This model is as anachronistic as it is hated by many lawyers. It originates from a time when corporate offices were pushing paper, when young lawyers research law libraries, dictate documents to stenographers, print them, assemble and sort them, and have them served by law clerks. processing servers.
Many nonprofit law firms were built on this business model, which has been in the final stages of obsolescence for years.
Today, legal work is the transmission of information in the form of data. It is communication with customers, between teammates and opponents. As if by magic, this transmission occurs in the air, in space and directly from personal device to personal device.
How has technology changed legal work? After Covid, traditional work models have come under closer scrutiny. We now rely on technology, like Zoom, Teams, cloud-based documents, email, and Slack to do our jobs. We have lost the human interactions of office life, but we have acquired a semi-permanent bond with our teams thanks to cyberspace.
This new model has also freed many lawyers from commuting or physical meetings. It also freed them from wearing costumes (and having them cleaned) and increased their flexibility in how and when to work. Lawyers could practice personal care, such as doing yoga as a break during regular working hours. Our days are now planned by us, as we see it best, around our work obligations.
Collaboration and office culture can be replicated without physical offices. Zoom, Slack and other platforms have given teams the ability to meet more often and more immediately than they could before Covid. These meetings can be shorter, with more specific agendas to address issues. In addition, law firms can subsidize data plans for mobile devices, offer Wi-Fi hotspots, and provide laptops or tablets to facilitate remote working. Even the most advanced and expensive technology is still cheaper than renting office space in places like downtown Manhattan.
Law firms that embrace technological change and move away from traditional office-based hierarchies will attract more talented and productive workers, who will also contribute to the firm for longer periods of time. In fact, remote working saves business money and increases worker productivity. Jason Wingard, “Remote work: how to succeed in the long term? ” Forbes, May 22, 2020.
Today’s law firms transmit packets of digital information over the Internet. This can happen from a desk in an office tower near Wall Street or from an iPhone. While Covid-19 has forced many law firms to close their physical offices, virtual work has become the preferred norm. Nonprofit law firms need to recognize that this is how legal work is done now.
How to access the courts in the post-Covid era? The legal system was already ripe for change. Even courts are changing, with some academics questioning whether courts are a physical place or a service. Richard Susskind, “Online Courts and the Future of Justice”, Oxford University Press (2019). If the courts are a service, that service can be provided more conveniently and efficiently.
Given the possibility of another pandemic, overcrowded courthouses may be unfeasible due to public health concerns. Virtual courts mean appearances in virtual courts, opening the door to remote working models.
But the digital divide must be overcome. Many low-income legal clients do not have access to the Internet or the hardware to use it. Others do not have the knowledge or experience to use technological tools.
If courts are to embrace virtual operations, they must create access points so that each litigant can access them equally. This can mean the distribution of tablets, like IPADS. This can mean expanding IT services as more people gain access to virtual procedures.
So what should nonprofit law firms do? As nonprofit law firms prepare to return to pre-Covid working models, they should consider the opportunities presented by the current reality. Some argue that Covid will “turbocharge” change in the corporate legal sector and in legal education. Mark A. Cohen, “COVID-19 Will Boost Legal Sector Transformation” Forbes, March 24, 2020.
Nonprofit law firms have a lot to gain in the post-Covid climate. Any client-centric practice model should focus on delivering service, where and when our clients need it. Physical buildings, with fixed office hours, are neither cost effective nor practical. Nonprofits in New York, for example, pay exorbitant rents for commercial offices in prime areas of the city. These areas are often the least practical and the least welcoming for the clients of these associations.
In addition, these physical locations force the workers of these nonprofits to live close to them. As a result, legal workers who receive relatively lower wages to perform mission-oriented work must also bear a higher cost of living in expensive cities. Such forced sacrifices limit the pool of workers seeking legal nonprofit jobs to those who have the privilege of making it through, or to those willing to make great personal sacrifices to get the job done.
Remote working and “work from anywhere” models mean more doors can open for those who can succeed in nonprofit law without making deep sacrifices. Workers can be more productive because they will be happier, and there will be less attrition because people will not have to choose between their professional growth and their personal growth. Money saved on overhead, like office space, can be funneled into tech support and salaries.
What do lawyers want? All lawyers, from recent graduates to senior partners, want job satisfaction, work-life balance and a living wage. It’s no secret that lawyers as a group have expressed high levels of dissatisfaction with their jobs, feel a lack of work-life balance, and are forced to live in cities with fewer jobs. high cost where even high wages evaporate on living expenses.
While litigants must appear in court at certain times, all other legal work can take place almost anytime and from anywhere. Transactional lawyers have fewer demands on their in-person time. Freeing lawyers from the 9-5 routine can help nonprofits give lawyers, especially millennials, what they want most: control over their time. “The change of the millennium: a change in the current paradigm of law firms”, Legal Executive Institute, Thomson Reuters, January 31, 2019.
Lawyers may prefer to spend time playing football with their children rather than waiting for work assigned to them in the office. They may want to start a family, take care of aging parents, work on their own care, or just have the freedom that many other professionals enjoy.
The traditional model has also skewed in favor of men and against women, who often have to choose between career advancement or family responsibilities. This has resulted in a male dominated legal profession, especially at the highest levels. It can be much better if managers recognize that workers want autonomy and flexibility in the way they work.
In short, even Hercules would not envy the tasks that will be demanded of managers and executives of nonprofit law firms as they consider returning to work in physical spaces. But with some foresight into the nature of the job and the needs of their workers, they can make better decisions. These decisions will impact the nature of legal work for decades.
The opinions expressed are those of the author. They do not reflect the views of Reuters News, which, under the principles of trust, is committed to respecting integrity, independence and freedom from bias. Westlaw Today is owned by Thomson Reuters.