Get-together: the office workspace will remain vital for collaboration and meetings
Get-together: the office workspace will remain vital for collaboration and meetings © Getty Images

The glitzy offices of big law firms — with their modern art works, coffee bars and even hairdressers and in-house gyms — were designed to make life easier for lawyers working gruelling hours.

Clifford Chance’s London office even has a bar, called the Budgie, and a swimming pool with views high above Canary Wharf. Other law firms have sleep pods — little rooms where employees working on all night deals can grab some rest.

But lawyers are likely to be using these generous office perks a lot less even after the pandemic. Some firms have said they will let employees work from home permanently or part of the time. This is a massive shift for a profession often criticised for a culture of long hours and office presenteeism.

Linklaters recently announced a new global agile working policy that allows the firm’s employees to work from home 20-50 per cent of the time, and at Herbert Smith Freehills this will be up to 40 per cent, even if offices are fully open and social distancing rules are removed. Slater & Gordon has said homeworking for its 2,000 or so staff will become the norm.

Many lawyers now envisage a future in which the office becomes a teamwork hub with staff having the flexibility to work remotely part time or to meet colleagues or clients in the office a few days a week. They believe the office will remain a vital space for collaboration, socialising and training — particularly for trainees and for clients.

“We need to get away from the old-fashioned idea of a law firm,” says Jonathan Bond, global director of HR and learning at law firm Pinsent Masons, who was already working from home one day a week before the pandemic. “We need to think of work as something you do and not somewhere you go — so you might be sitting in a living room rather than in a meeting room.”

Hong Kong-based Justin D’Agostino took over as chief executive of Herbert Smith Freehills early this year, just as most of the firm’s 6,000 employees pivoted to remote working. The firm’s new policy follows a review of what worked well during the past few months, and has been met with enthusiasm from staff. One lawyer messaged him to say it was a “game changer” for working parents.

“I’m in no doubt offices will play a very important role going forward for law firms but I think it’s right to give people more flexibility when offices fully reopen,” Mr D’Agostino says. “This change is here to stay and we want to identify the benefits from it.”

He envisages days when teams will want to meet in the office to socialise, to negotiate the final stages of a deal or just before filing a complex piece of litigation. At other times they will work remotely. “We have done some complex transactions and big filings during the pandemic and it has all gone successfully,” he adds.

“In any walk of life people learn from their peers [by working next to them],” says Simon Davis, a litigator who is current president of the Law Society, which represents solicitors in England and Wales. But everyone has to look at what they use the office for: “Even in an office, people can be in their rooms on the phone all day.”

Triage tent in Cremona: Italy-based Andrea Arosio says crisis tested remote working
Triage tent in Cremona: Italy-based Andrea Arosio’s firm found remote working worked well but colleagues missed personal interaction © AFP via Getty Images

In a survey of 62 law firms across Europe by consultancy RSG about the impact of coronavirus on their work, just over a quarter said remote working had resulted in a rise in productivity. Nearly half said they expected a long-term change in the way office space is used. The pandemic has also accelerated the use of technology, such as video calls, electronic signatures and document management systems.

Law firms have started a phased reopening of their offices with some splitting staff into teams to manage capacity. Hogan Lovells started in early September, with staff split into two sets, with each allowed to go to the office on alternative weeks. The firm has now paused these plans in line with UK government guidance. Clifford Chance has reopened at 50 per cent capacity but employees continue to work from home if they prefer.

Yet many lawyers say endless Zoom calls are no substitute for face-to-face contact or chance conversations that can spark a creative idea.

Andrea Arosio, managing partner of Linklaters in Italy, said recently that while the pandemic had proved the firm could work well remotely, it also reinforced the benefits of interaction in person with clients and staff — as well as the value of offices as hubs of teamwork and learning.

Homeworking during lockdown meant that Susan Bright, regional managing partner at Hogan Lovells, was able to have dinner every night with her family, without the daily commute into London. But it has been harder to connect informally with colleagues. “I would spend a lot of time walking the corridors and putting my head round someone’s door but there is no digital equivalent,” she says.

Ms Bright notes that the world of work was already changing, accelerated by technology, before lockdown. “But there are real benefits of being together learning and collaborating.”

Homeworking has created challenges for lawyers in sensitive areas such as cyber security and disposing of confidential information, but the biggest concern has been the impact on junior lawyers and trainees, who rely on observing senior colleagues to learn. Trainee solicitors usually have four placements or “seats” of six months duration in different departments including stints abroad.

As a result, law firms are taking a more proactive approach to training. Mr Bond at Pinsent Masons says the firm took action after a survey of young lawyers in Australia, who said they were not getting enough on-the-job training. They are now permitted to listen in to client meetings.

Patrick McCann, global head of learning at Linklaters, says the firm put around 600 training sessions online for trainees and stepped up its monitoring and feedback. However, among trainees — the lawyers of the future — “there is certainly a willingness to come back into a physical location and learn”.

Responding to Covid-19
RankLaw firm
STANDOUTMills & Reeve — Built an online tool to help UK health workers put their affairs in order in case they become sick or die from Covid-19. The tool allows users to check intestacy rules and download documents, such as a will. It has been used more than 2,000 times.
STANDOUTMorais Leitão, Galvão Teles, Soares da Silva & Associados — Acts as the lead legal supporter of Tech4Covid19, a collaboration of individuals from 250 Portuguese companies working to create technology to combat Covid-19. The firm has advised on tools such as a website to allow health professionals to book free accommodation close to the hospitals where they work and a project to provide students with computer equipment.
STANDOUTNorton Rose Fulbright — Developed a technology tool and framework to help expedite the dispute resolution process for clients struggling to meet contractual obligations because of Covid-19. The fixed-price service ensures clients achieve an outcome for a dispute within six weeks.
STANDOUTStewarts — Within 10 days of lockdown measures being announced in the UK, the firm advised on the first fully virtual trial in the UK commercial court. The trial was broadcast live on YouTube.
HIGHLY COMMENDEDAllen & Overy — Designed a digital contract review tool using Kira Systems, a contract analysis specialist, to allow clients to easily review contractual questions such as force majeure rights and notice periods. The tool reduces contract review from three days to three hours, helping clients to quickly assess contractual clauses affected by Covid-19 and reduce legal costs.
HIGHLY COMMENDEDBaker McKenzie — Launched a buddy scheme that pairs more than 60 clients with a trainee lawyer to help them navigate the array of Covid-related materials produced by the firm. Clients can contact their buddy at any point to request information on a specific topic. The firm also designed an online tool to provide up-to-date information on foreign investment regulations in 24 jurisdictions, helping clients understand stricter regulations prompted by Covid-19.
HIGHLY COMMENDEDBird & Bird — Created a tool that summarises travel updates across different European jurisdictions. The tool helps airlines and travel companies track important developments affecting their business.
HIGHLY COMMENDEDBonelliErede — In response to the urgent need for ventilators and personal protective equipment during the pandemic, the firm worked with non-profit Buzzi Foundation on an initiative that raises money to buy equipment. The law firm designed a structure to lend equipment to Italian hospitals before it was permanently installed in a children’s hospital still under construction. This dual-purpose initiative raised €3.5m within 60 days.
HIGHLY COMMENDEDDLA Piper — While advising on a business structuring project, the firm built a live tracker within the project management tool HighQ to give client technology and services provider NTT weekly updates about complications resulting from Covid-19. The tracker is now being rolled out globally to help clients navigate legal and business challenges linked to the pandemic. (Note: HighQ is a product from Thomson Reuters, a sponsor of the FT Innovative Lawyers report).
HIGHLY COMMENDEDEllex — Advised on the data privacy challenges surrounding the development of Estonia’s digital immunity passport, an app that allows individuals who have tested positive for Covid-19 to share their results with a third-party employer. The data gathered by the tool helps employers assess the risks of staff returning to the workplace.
HIGHLY COMMENDEDGarrigues — Used document automation platform Contract Express to automate the forms required to apply for ERTE, a temporary suspension from work scheme in Spain. The firm managed more than 200 proposal requests in four weeks, reducing the time to complete the forms from two hours to three minutes. (Note: Contract Express is a product from Thomson Reuters, a sponsor of the FT Innovative Lawyers report).
HIGHLY COMMENDEDPaul Hastings — Created a fund to provide grants to employees and their immediate family struggling financially because of Covid-19. Donations made by Paul Hastings employees to the fund are matched by the firm. Other support measures for all staff during lockdown include free counselling sessions and a $100 bursary to cover resources while working from home.
COMMENDEDAddleshaw Goddard — Helped molecular diagnostics company Genedrive raise funds and secure the materials to develop two Covid-19 tests. The firm designed a structure to allow the company to fundraise, resulting in share prices increasing by more than 2,000 per cent at one point. It drafted a distribution contract to minimise delays on rolling out the tests.
COMMENDEDCCA Law Firm — To promote private investment in the real estate and tourism sectors, the firm persuaded the Portuguese government to change regulations that require documents to be signed in person. Documents can now be notarised virtually through a videoconferencing platform.
COMMENDEDCuatrecasas — Advised carmaker Seat on transforming its assembly lines to provide emergency ventilators in response to Covid-19. A multidisciplinary team composed of partners specialising in public law, pharmaceutical, intellectual property and product liability helped convince Spanish healthcare authorities to adapt clinical research procedures to accelerate production. At the height of the crisis, Seat produced 100 ventilators per day.
COMMENDEDDeloitte Legal — Created a free online platform to provide information about cash repatriation across 20 jurisdictions for businesses facing cash flow problems or shortages. The firm’s employment team created a tool to allow clients to check if they are eligible to claim for employees' wages through the UK's coronavirus job retention scheme.
COMMENDEDDLA Piper — Developed a tool that automates the production of rent concession letters for UK landlords, allowing landlords to quickly send letters to tenants offering rent concession measures such as rent reduction or abatement. Commended: Katie Jacobson.
COMMENDEDEllex, Sorainen, Cobalt, LINKlaw, Rask, Leadell Pilv and Alterna — The firms worked together to lobby the Estonian government to introduce legislation that would allow shareholder resolutions to be agreed during lockdown without shareholders needing to meet in person. As a result of the group’s efforts, the Estonian parliament passed an act in May that relaxes rules for governing bodies, enabling shareholder votes to be collected electronically.
COMMENDEDJuscutum — Created two online tools to help smaller businesses navigate changing tax regulations. A chatbot allows users to pay taxes, send reports and check debt on a smartphone, while the firm’s Legal Alarm Covid-19 tool provides free templates to help on navigating questions such as taxes, loans and liquidation and bankruptcy.
COMMENDEDLatham & Watkins — Advised loans provider Funding Circle on becoming the first platform under the UK government’s Coronavirus Business Interruption Loans Scheme, designed to help smaller businesses struggling to access capital due to the pandemic. The firm has helped the company with six funding transactions through the programme worth over £460m.
COMMENDEDPusch Wahlig Workplace Law — Designed a tool, KuG, to automate the process of applying for short-time work scheme allowances, an initiative in Germany that allows employers to reduce the working hours of employees in order to save on personnel costs. The tool has been used by more than 200 small businesses.
COMMENDEDSlaughter and May — Helped implement an assistance programme operated by the Bank of England that allows UK companies to purchase commercial paper, a short-term debt instrument. The firm has advised more than 50 clients on accessing the scheme, helping companies adversely affected by Covid-19 to manage disruption to their cash flow.
COMMENDEDSorainen — Launched a programme, Shared Vision, to offer pro bono support to organisations developing tools in the Baltics and Belarus that help solve problems caused by Covid-19. The launch involved developing internal processes to review applications and record pro bono hours. Projects the firm has supported include a mobile app to provide psychological support and an ultraviolet light respirator.
COMMENDEDToffoletto De Luca Tamajo — Built an online platform to allow clients to navigate government regulations on how businesses could run during lockdown in Italy. After completing a survey, users are provided with a summary about their compliance in four areas: contract revisions, heath and safety, data privacy and employee welfare.
COMMENDEDTuca Zbarcea & Asociatii — Developed an accelerator programme to help start-ups in the hospitality industry, one of the sectors worst affected by Covid-19. The firm provides companies on the scheme with legal advice, access to financing and technology expertise.
Innovation in social responsibility
RankLaw firm
STANDOUTWINNER: Allen & Overy, Ashurst, Charles Russell Speechlys, Dentons, Orrick and White & Case — The firms formed the Greece Collaborative project to support charities European Lawyers in Lesvos and Refugee Legal Support in helping refugees in a camp on the Greek island of Lesvos with their applications for asylum. The project has advised more than 1,000 asylum seekers since August 2019, and those who receive aid from the firms are 30 per cent more likely to gain international protection.
HIGHLY COMMENDEDFreshfields Bruckhaus Deringer — Established a third-party public interventions practice that specialises in pro bono intervention in high-profile court cases. The pro bono lawyers work with disputes partners and experts from across the firm's European offices. The team has advised on 14 interventions since January 2018. In one case where the UK Home Office had ruled that an individual was not a victim of human trafficking, the legal team helped argue for this decision to be overruled by a tribunal decision, which led to a change in law allowing tribunals to overrule Home Office decisions of this kind.
HIGHLY COMMENDEDUría Menéndez — Advised the Ödos Project, an initiative led by Spanish charity the Emet Arco Iris Foundation to protect vulnerable women and girls, on an asylum case. It argued that Spain should grant asylum to a woman fleeing Ivory Coast because her children were at risk of female genital mutilation, despite the fact it is illegal in Ivory Coast. Lawyers established that the family should be given asylum on the basis of gender, a premise previously disputed under Spanish law.
COMMENDEDDLA Piper — Lawyers from the firm offer pro bono legal support through Unicef’s U-Report, a messaging service that advises young people on problems such as housing, school and healthcare. DLA Piper has counselled more than 500 migrants and refugees in Italy via the service and has provided reliable information to users during the Covid-19 outbreak.
COMMENDEDGómez-Acebo & Pombo — Created blockchain tokens called Pombos that can be bought by clients in packages of 350, which equate to 350 pro bono hours to be allocated to specific projects. This offers clients choice and transparency on where their money is spent.
COMMENDEDWhite & Case — Worked with humanitarian organisation the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and the Islamic Development Bank on a funding mechanism to drive investment from Islamic countries to help reduce cholera. White & Case offered legal advice on the structure, a combination of a fund and a sukuk, a bond structured to comply with sharia law.
Note: 'winner' indicates the organisations that jointly won the FT Innovative Lawyers: Europe 2020 award for 'Innovation in social responsibility'; other organisations are ranked alphabetically within bands
Innovation as thought leaders
RankIn-house legal team and description
STANDOUTWINNER: Vodafone — In partnership with networking group the Employers Initiative on Domestic Abuse, general counsel Helen Lamprell has implemented a domestic abuse policy and developed an app to help those affected by domestic violence. Through ReConnect, a programme to support individuals returning to work after a break, she has helped build a toolkit for employers implementing returner programmes. Vodafone is also working with learning disability charity Mencap on a project to install technology in the homes of people with learning difficulties to enable them live more independent lives. Commended: Helen Lamprell.
STANDOUTJust Eat — The food delivery platform, now part of the Just Eat group, was the first to display official hygiene and safety ratings for its 35,000-plus partner restaurants in the UK, although it is not a regulatory requirement. The legal team also supported a company initiative to help restaurants improve their rating via a free food safety programme run with product testing agency NSF. Commended: Isabelle Meyer.
HIGHLY COMMENDEDGlaxoSmithKline — The British pharmaceutical company launched a legal emerging talent programme last year to provide young lawyers with leadership, resilience and change management training and work on group projects. The programme has been recognised by the senior management at GSK for its impact. The 700-strong global legal team is brought together through three regional events each year to train lawyers in business acumen, helping the team become more cohesive. While working from home during the pandemic, the team has connected through an initiative where employees link up one-on-one online.
HIGHLY COMMENDEDNasdaq — As the EU planned new rules for green products or investments, Nasdaq's European Legal and Regulatory Team has lobbied regulators and policymakers for a balance between legally required reporting and self-regulation. They facilitated Nasdaq's Sustainable Bond Network, an online platform using distributed ledger technology, which aims to improve visibility in the market for green, social and sustainability bonds, and the Nasdaq ESG Data Portal, which makes environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) data on Nasdaq listed companies available to investors.
HIGHLY COMMENDEDNetwork Rail — The state-owned operator of the UK’s rail network was the first adopter of “The O Shaped Lawyer”, a framework developed by general counsel Dan Kayne in collaboration with law firms and other in-house legal teams for guiding young legal professionals by working with universities and providers of obligatory vocational training. A pilot scheme began in March 2020. General counsel at Centrica and easyJet have included support of the programme as a requirement in tenders from law firms.
HIGHLY COMMENDEDNovartis — The Swiss pharmaceutical company has a reputation for penalising its firms that do not have diverse representation on their teams by cutting their fees. Using tech platform Persuit, where law firms bid for Novartis's legal work, the team have included a minimum number of hours assigned to lawyers from under-represented demographics for each matter, leading to a rise of 10 per cent since February. The online platform has also cut the legal team's administrative time spent on procurement.
COMMENDEDClose Brothers — Through partnership with UK social mobility organisation Upreach and the Black Lawyers Directory, the merchant bank's legal team have mentored and helped students to secure jobs and associateships. General counsel Angela Yotov co-founded a non-profit initiative, Mentorix, which pairs legal leaders from companies including KPMG, the Crown Estate and Airbnb with aspiring leaders from each other's legal teams. The programme also finds and matches people who can mentor each other.
COMMENDEDRoyal Bank of Scotland — The legal team has worked to monitor and improve mental health among its lawyers. Measures including fortnightly monitoring of team engagement and responsiveness through an anonymous short survey. The results allow leadership to oversee stress levels and wellbeing.
COMMENDEDVeon — When the telecoms group wanted to provide data science training to staff in Ukraine using actual information, the legal team made sure the required materials complied with data protection and privacy requirements. The team also developed key performance indicators for the scheme. To date, 14 participants have been offered positions in the data team at Kyivstar.
*Note: 'winner' indicates the organisation that won the FT Innovative Lawyers: Europe 2020 award for 'innovation as thought leaders'; other organisations are ranked alphabetically within bands
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