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A Stress-Tested Legal Industry: An Update on the Evolution of Agile Working Practices

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Introduction

Flexible and agile working practices are emerging trends which have been adopted by law firms, to varying extents, as part of their working policies. This article will take a look at the key features in agile working and discuss the latest industry trend: the legal gig economy. Also, it will reflect how the current coronavirus crisis may compel a change in industry perceptions towards flexible work.

Agile Working Practices: Key Features

Agile working is a mode of work that empowers lawyers to work with maximum flexibility and minimum constraints. For lawyers, agile working means increased freedom from timesheets and target billable hours.  For businesses, it means a reduction of expensive overheads. This is a win-win because it pushes law firms to adopt innovative business practices and leading-edge technology that delivers better value for clients, whilst boosting productivity and overall happiness of their staff.

In essence, this shift towards flexible lawyering is largely a reflection of a new generation of lawyers with certain expectations regarding the way they’d like to work and live in the 21st century, which, according to George Bisnought (MD at platform law firm, Excello Law), have become “increasingly less compatible with traditional working patterns”. A growing cohort of law firms has already taken steps toward agile working. Dentons staff, for instance, (ranging from UK partners, associates and legal executives) can work from home one day a week, on an informal basis. Clifford Chance goes further and encourages partners to work from home when possible.

A major contributing factor towards the popularity of agile working is due to shifting commercial expectations the delivery of legal advice/services should be process-driven, scalable and cost-transparent. For instance, Lawyers on Demand (“LOD”, a global legal resourcing provider) contracts out legal manpower on a project-by-project basis as in-house support to corporate clients, including UBS, Gucci and Vodafone.  In response, law firms like Hogan Lovells and Allen & Overy have adopted similar cost-cutting strategies by keeping leaner teams (with agile working policies in place), whilst the rest is contracted out to legal resourcing services like Cognia Law or Elevate.

The Legal Gig Economy: The Latest Industry Trend

It is important to stress that agile working as charted above is not limited to working flexibly for law firms, NewLaw or alternative legal providers. Agile working includes lawyers working on a freelance basis.

One popular means to do so is through “platform law firms”. Platform law firms are virtual law firms that allow lawyers to work remotely using shared services like IT, marketing and compliance provided by a central hub. Having lawyers work remotely means platform law firms often have fewer overhead costs, and therefore these lawyers can keep a higher percentage of the fees they charge. Though this comes with the uncertainty of being self-employed, Hazlewood’s (an accounting firm) figures show lawyers working on a freelance basis have risen 29% or 1,305 in 2018, up from 803 in 2017. On this, Jon Cartwright, partner at Hazlewoods, comments that “the continued growth of platform law firms…is part of the broader trend amongst lawyers to be more entrepreneurial, to strike out on their own”.

Industry Updates: How the Coronavirus Will Soon Compel Change in Legal Working Practices

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to spread, many City firms have put in place sustained remote working practices to ensure its offices can handle a potential wide-scale shutdown. Amongst this cohort includes Kirkland & Ellis, Slaughter and May, Clifford Chance, Baker, Travers and Hogan Lovells. Others such as Reed Smith and Pillsbury remain open, to be manned by a skeleton staff. Weil alternatively proposes to divide its lawyers and staff to alternate-working from home (“WFH”) on a bi-weekly basis.

Regardless of which approach was taken, it is clear that the previous technological system reserved for occasional WFH practices have now been implemented in a manner and scale previously not seen before. This poses a major challenge for an industry built on trust and relationships. Other challenges include the slow-down in the pace of work, given the team-oriented nature of commercial work.

It is suggested that implementing WFH practices on such a scale should, at a minimum, lead to changes in perception and attitudes towards flexible work. This was made possible largely due to the advanced communication systems and legal technologies available in the market. As such, it is clear to see that the coronavirus crisis can and will create a lasting effect in how flexible legal services, supported by the aforementioned legal tools, can deliver a ‘win-win’ outcome for law firms and lawyers.

How will this affect my career as an Aspiring Lawyer?

Aspiring lawyers should have these developments on their radar, particularly the notion of distance working and business relationships made remotely. Given these trying times, it is predicted that law firms (even outside the City) will be accepting the utilization of technology to implement flexible workplace policies. For this reason, it is envisioned that law students and aspiring lawyers will soon be entering into a workplace where working remotely or flexibly is an option and even an encouraged practice.

By Roslyn Lai

Bibliography 

  1.  https://zegal.com/en-hk/blog/post/a-letter-to-an-aspiring-lawyer-why-the-gig-economy-should-be-on-your-radar/ – 
  2. https://www.thelawyer.com/flexible-working-for-lawyers-whos-doing-what/  
  3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lawyers_on_Demand – facts about LOD
  4. https://www.lexisnexis.co.uk/blog/future-of-law/law-firms-of-the-future-agile-working – second bit on what agile working means for the legal industry
  5. https://www.chambersstudent.co.uk/where-to-start/newsletter/alternative-business-structures – example of ABS 
  6. https://www.chambersstudent.co.uk/where-to-start/trends-affecting-the-legal-profession – LSA 2007 facts
  7. http://www.globallegalpost.com/big-stories/the-gig-economy-for-lawyers-continues-to-expand-74886575/ – gig economy for lawyers 
  8. https://www.newlawjournal.co.uk/content/lawyers-gig-economy – another article on gig economy for lawyers 
  9. https://www.taylorroot.com/blog/2018/10/how-the-gig-economy-may-affect-the-legal-sector 
  10. https://www2.deloitte.com/uk/en/pages/audit/articles/developing-legal-talent.html – future law firm trends and why we should be more aware of agile working practices and gig working 
  11. https://www.law.com/americanlawyer/2020/03/13/reed-smith-enacts-remote-working-worldwide-to-stave-off-coronavirus/
  12. https://www.shoosmiths.co.uk/careers/careers-early/early-careers-blog/blog/could-coronavirus-change-the-way-we-work-forever

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