Back to the Office or Brave New World?


We had it all planned for February 2022: an in-person conference for senior and managing partners of law firms around the world. The topic of the day was «Managing Law Firms in a Post-COVID World». Interesting program, perfect timing—except that the Omicron variant forced us to push the event back by a year.

Will our lives ever be back to normal? In a way, yes. But in keeping with Winston Churchill’s famous adage, one should never let a good crisis go to waste. So this might be the moment to share some reflections on how the last two years have changed our profession, and what lessons regarding the future may be in store for law firm leaders.

Reflections on How COVID May Change the Legal Profession

I. Taking Care of Our Key Assets

Most big law firms have kept up remarkably well during the pandemic. Some even had record years when their clients, and the economy at large, were in crisis. Even so, the manner in which the legal profession operates may well change—something that in many ways was overdue. This change concerns the two key assets every law firm has:

  • our clients, which include our referral sources, and
  • our talent, the gifted young lawyers who are pursuing their career with us.

II. Keeping up with Our Clients

What Clients Want

COVID has been a boon for law firms, not the least as a result of helping clients who were in firefighting mode. But this constant firefighting may also mean that some law firms have not spent sufficient time to redesign client service in a manner that is fit for the future. A few thoughts on this:

  • Understand what clients want. It cannot be said often enough: lawyers should speak less and listen more. This applies to video conferences (VCs) as much as it does to physical meetings. But how good are lawyers at following up on this promise? Do they call a client after a tedious meeting to debrief, hopefully by video-call, rather than rushing off to the next assignment? Do clients and counterparties—as well as team members working on the file—get a chance to air their views in a VC? After all, every participant occupies the same size of square on a computer screen, so they all deserve to be heard. Moving ahead in a post-COVID world means being inclusive, and this starts with how meetings are conducted.
  • Be crisp, be concise. During the pandemic, as much as in any other crisis, there was no time to get up to speed on what the law says. Lawyers needed to have all the relevant information at their fingertips. But this does not mean that clients have to be advised with long-winded memos or Ciceronian speeches. Oftentimes it may be better to send the client only a two-page memo summarizing what is really relevant for the business decision; to write talking points for the chair of a board meeting rather than a lengthy summary of the procedural rules for decision-making; to summarize the advantages and drawbacks of settling a drawn-out litigation case in two or three paragraphs.

Hans-Peter Frick, who for over 20 years served as the Group General Counsel of Nestlé, got it right: «We are not here to practice law. We are here to offer legally sound business solutions». This has been a yardstick for many inhouse counsel, and it should also be the new normal for law firms. Indeed, lengthy memos are out. Crisp e-mails are in.

Advantages and Limits of Digital Meetings

The world has gone digital; VCs are here to stay. This is unlikely to change even when travel is possible again. Many meetings work well, or even better, on screen than in person: speakers tend to be more disciplined, mutual interruptions are rarer, lengthy speeches do not happen. Law firm partners’ meetings can be efficiently conducted by VC, routine negotiations or project management calls as well. Continuing education also works over the screen: lectures by VC can be most effective, especially if interaction is encouraged. Even court hearings, hitherto seen as the epitome of the presence of an advocate in a room and therefore absolutely indispensable to be held in person, are now conducted online. The English courts have been faster than those on the Continent to pick up on this trend.

Clearly, there are limits to videoconferencing. VCs do not allow for the proverbial «step out on the balcony» where I can take my client out of the room and discretely discuss a point with them to advance a settlement or bring closure to a difficult commercial decision. VCs do not allow me to pick up all the little things, the non-verbal signals that are inherent in any in-person meeting: the smell, the posture, the raised eyebrow.

Still, one can make the best out of VCs. To begin with, they are more inclusive precisely because no-one needs to travel to one location. This allows for broader participation even in critical situations. Moreover, there are other ways to keep up the contact with the client or opposing counsel:

  • Pre-COVID, issues often got sorted out after a meeting, walking back to the office or driving together in a taxi on the way to the airport.
  • Today, lawyers can find different ways to debrief: after a meeting, they can video-call. This also allows for a glimpse into clients’ lives, especially those who use no artificial screen, whose backgrounds feature real bookshelves or paintings. One of the author’s favorite clients even takes calls in his garage while repairing his vintage Porsche; and what gets sorted out in the garage is often as robust as what was agreed in the taxi in earlier days.

III. Taking Care of our Colleagues in the Firm

The Way We Work

Clearly, COVID has brought a boost in the use of technology. VCs have almost entirely replaced physical meetings, e-Tools have changed the way lawyers work. By now, even the most seasoned lawyer knows that he or she must be able to master new applications without asking their PA or the IT staff.

The way we work will change. Work from home (WFH) is here to stay. Some associates like to work in the office, others are equally and sometimes more productive at home. But those who live in a two-bedroom flat, drafting stacks of contracts with family duties on the side have a different attitude to WFH than those for whom the “H” in WFH means a second home in the Hamptons, the Cotswolds or the Swiss Alps. That said, some—but not all—young staff appreciate the flexibility of working from home.

The CEO of Goldman Sachs calls WFH «an aberration». But notwithstanding this quip, most professional service firms will no longer be willing to turn back the clock. Rather, they will have to find their own mix between in-office days and work from home. And a WFH policy should not be decreed from the top, so why not introduce a streak of democracy in otherwise tightly managed firms? It is worth listening to a law firm’s junior staff before deciding what the right mix between in-office days and work from home is.

Keeping Teams Together

In a WFH environment, seeing one’s own team and looking them into the eyes is a challenge. But it needs to be done. Virtual coffee breaks can help; and they should be real breaks, not just another pep talk from the boss. Rather than smiling at each other, why not let the most junior member of our team propose a conversation topic on which every team member can chip in?

And even if WFH is here for good, it is important to keep teams together. Mandatory in-office days may help, with continuing education sessions, extended coffee breaks and cocktails in the early evening. These days may be less productive in terms of billable hours, but infinitely more valuable in terms of social glue.

Not to be forgotten: work during COVID has put even more of a strain on new entrants in law firms than on those who already know the organization by heart. A customized in-person induction program is of little help if the office is almost empty. Mentoring becomes more important than ever because meetings on the fly do not happen anymore.

Mental Health

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, mental health has come to the forefront of professional service firms. Burn-out and fatigue have always been an issue for lawyers of all ages, but few dare openly to speak about it.

The well-being of co-workers at every level matters because COVID has brought an additional burden to many of us—but fewer opportunities to re-energize. Some worry about family and friends falling ill, or succumbing to the virus themselves and still having to get the work done. Others may need to take care of people who are struggling. And given restrictions on public gatherings and travel, there is no relief in sight. Over the last two years, everyone missed out on otherwise invigorating highlights: family get-togethers, trips across the world, small concerts in cramped nightclubs.

Stories of associate burn-out abound in the legal yellow press. They are typical for the end of a long economic cycle, rather similar to 1999 and 2007/08. This time, workload is exacerbated by the additional strain that COVID put on everyone’s lives. London firms try and cope by throwing money at the problem. I’m afraid this is not going to do the trick in the end.

Right now, the biggest burden appears to be on mid-level associates who do all the documentation work, day in, day out. Do law firm leaders know how they are doing in these times? Do they have the chance to express their feelings if they are overwhelmed? And most importantly, are their concerns taken seriously, and acted upon, when they speak up—before it is too late?

For law firm leaders, it would be dangerous to resign themselves to just getting through the day or to hide in a cocoon. Many of those around them may be in a situation where they are about to reach their limit: colleagues in the firm, those in society who are affected more by COVID than any lawyer is.

IV. Looking Ahead

Building Networks is More Difficult than Keeping Them

Seasoned lawyers should also be mindful of the situation which their junior colleagues are in: if I have built a network of trusted clients and colleagues around the world over 20 years, it is easy to stay in touch on screen or by telephone. We’ve met many times over. We’ve had a glass of wine or a masala chai together. We sat in sticky conference rooms with no air-conditioning. We laughed at ourselves. We literally rubbed shoulders.

The game is entirely different for a young lawyer who is just about starting to build her career and her network. She cannot draw on the same depth of relationships and camaraderie. Law firm leaders are in a position to help; they can open the door. After all, networking is not only about building one’s own contacts, it also means passing on relationships to the next generation. Catching up one-on-one is certainly cozy, but including others in the conversation is now even more important than pre-COVID. Involving the next generation in personal interactions stays a key feature of keeping law firms successful.

Law Firm Conferences

Do law firm conferences still matter? Are they worth the trip, the pre-flight PCR test, the lingering doubt whether one has to quarantine upon return? Continuing education sessions may well be just as efficient online, so they are no longer worth the bother. But people will always want to join networking events with a tangible value. In-person contact still matters. Overseas trips may become fewer and farther between, though, so everyone will have to choose what remains relevant. Boondoggles are out. Networking events that are truly worth the time and travel will come back, eventually.

Working Towards a Brighter Future

During the times of COVID, lawyers and law firms were lucky. We weathered the storm, our books of business remained strong. The world will change many times over, but some principles stay: keeping our client relationships, caring about our associates’ well-being, cultivating our networks and passing them on to the next generation, all of which will make our firms stronger. The future is bright if we approach it with an open mind.

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