As one firm leader stoically put it: "Despite the crisis, we need to ‘keep calm and carry on’. For now, and as a start, that may be enough."
The latest Bellwether report, which looks at covid-19 and the legal industry, offers encouraging conclusions on the move to homeworking, particularly that it has not been at the expense of productivity. However, the decision-makers in firms are caught up in a “perfect storm” of issues.
The lockdown restrictions required a quick move to homeworking, presenting challenges for law leaders which, for the most part, they did remarkably effectively. The report found that firms moved three quarters of staff to work effectively work from home. This is “a feat that would have been almost unimaginable at the start of the year”, observes the report.
But has productivity and output been negatively impacted? Not as much as was feared, according to the report – which found effectiveness dropped by less than 30 per cent.
So what does this mean for the future of homeworking? There is no straightforward answer to this question because, to use a much-used cliché, ‘one size does not fit all’. Women, male lawyers with families and younger lawyers are more likely to want to continue to work from home while the report reveals that older lawyers – the decision-makers and leaders – are more likely to want to return to the office.
Firms can therefore expect to undertake a level of consultation with staff members and to be prepared to reach a compromise with some employees. Unsurprisingly, 50 per cent of those surveyed said they expected a permanent change to firm policies around working from home.
The report’s findings with regard to mental health and wellbeing should come as no surprise. It found that stress levels continued to be a major issue for lawyers (a quarter of respondent said more should be done to support them at work). It noted that wellbeing has not been prioritised given the “unrelenting commercial challenges” posed by covid-19; but it appears to be the fourth highest priority for firms nonetheless.
It also found decision-makers to have been particularly impacted, “caught in a perfect storm of tougher trading conditions, needing to manage their firms remotely and having to get up to speed with new tech”.
“Motivation and morale is down… which makes practicing law and running a business harder”, as one respondent said.
Respondents reported stable rather than declining revenues but cash flow was a key concern for firms (44 per cent expressed worry about insufficient cash flows to meet their current costs).
Furthermore, the viability of firms’ clients in light of covid-19 will dictate to what extent firms themselves are able to survive and thrive. Nearly half of firms consider covid-19 a critical threat to clients. As the report states: “There can be no path to recovery without a buoyant consumer and commercial market.”
Some may question whether the Bellwether report is unrealistically upbeat. The Law Society, though encouraged by the report per se – says its own research (based on a larger sample size over a similar period) showed firms were less optimistic about the impact of covid-19 on their business. On 1 May, it reported that 71 per cent of high street firms said they may have to shut shop in the next six months because of the pandemic.
The Bellwether report followed 15 independently conducted interviews and online surveys completed by more than 150 solicitors across small firms in England and Wales, as well as small offices of larger firms.
The report is available at lexisnexis.co.uk/Bellwether2020
Written by Nicola Laver, a non-practicing solicitor and a qualified journalist. She is also editor of Solicitors Journal.