The report, Transformation troubles: responding to a new era of change, highlights a number of issues that firms and their management ought to note. Encouragingly, it’s not all ‘troubles’: to read that almost everyone was confident about the future of their business, with financial expectations having been met by 80% of firms, should be reassuring for the profession as a whole.
The survey was responded to by 345 small and medium law firms and sole practitioners throughout England and Wales in March. More than half of respondents said they were growing.
But the report highlights three key threats to firms, one of which is the challenge of attracting and retaining talent – a topic increasingly tied up with issues of remote working and the quest for a work life balance.
Covid-19 changed the way we work. For some firms, the change was temporary; for other firms change has prompted a permanent shift in working patterns – particularly many larger firms who have accepted there are benefits of formalising hybrid working.
Hybrid working offers the flexibility to lawyers of working remotely some days, while in the office on other days. Firms facilitating flexible working patterns are more likely to attract the talent they are seeking.
The legal sector is increasingly recognising the need to sustain a work-life balance – a factor ranked the most important by almost half of the survey respondents. And remote working – which has undoubtedly helped achieve a better work life balance for many – is holding virtually no firms back, the survey revealed.
Hybrid working is not limited to the bigger firms by any stretch – 71% said their firm adapted well (or very well) to the challenges of hybrid working. Once respondent said: "We are very, very happy with the hybrid scenario, not because we have got any intention to decrease office space but just because our people are more productive and happy, and you know happy people are productive people."
One of the reasons for requiring staff to spend a significant proportion of their contractual working time in the office was to protect the firm’s culture, notably for building relationships. There’s a balance to be struck – both for the firm and individual staff members, particularly with stress levels among lawyers remaining high. In fact, 1 in 4 indicated that if they were starting their career again, they would not go to into law.
Keeping up with changes to the law was also cited as a constant challenge for at least three quarters of the respondents – undoubtedly adding to their stress levels. So it's to be welcomed that the Law Society is recognising the problems of stress and burnout within the profession.
At the start of Mental Health Awareness Week in May, the Society announced a partnership with LawCare to call for a change in culture in the profession. The Society’s president I Stephanie Boyce said: “The onus is often on the individual to ‘fix’ their mental ill-health. In truth, we have a collective responsibility to make a positive work environment for everyone.”
This, she says, includes tackling excessive working hours and workloads – especially for younger lawyers. Implementing a hybrid style of working certainly seems to be an important way forward in helping to tackle the problem. It isn’t without its own set of problems, however. Watch this space.
The full Bellwether report can be found here.