Which law firms are ready to go their own way on the return to work?

While all businesses are keen to get things ‘back to normal’, some law firms will not be rushing their people back to the physical office.

Brave and far-sighted decisions law firms are making now will drive loyalty, improve productivity, increase retention (and constrain costs while ensuring the viability of the firm).


As some lockdown restrictions start to lift, there is a presumption in much of the ‘return to work’ commentary that everyone will benefit from staff returning to offices.

There is a clear push from policy makers to ‘get people back to work’, including those people who have actually never stopped working (they have just been at the kitchen table).

However the authors of articles about perspex cubicles and disposable cutlery are not applying sufficient imagination to either the problems or the opportunities facing large organisations.

In workplaces like law firms, almost full functionality has been achieved even while the majority of employees have worked from home. Fascinatingly, the evidence is that large firms have performed just as well if not better during the shutdown.

Any decision to return the workforce to the physical office (before a vaccine) must closely weigh up the losses and gains of having people stay home and having them return to work.


While people have found the lockdown period challenging, this next phase will be a significant improvement.

Schools are reopening, contact between families for childcare and support is permitted and to some degree the home life will start to return to ‘normal’.

Many workers who have worked from home during the pandemic have indicated they would like to continue working 2-3 days from home permanently, and there are many reports of people revelling in the lack of commute and increased home time.

With the lifting of restrictions, working from home will soon start to look a lot more like the old working from home instead of ‘working anywhere you can during a pandemic’ (with kids back at school in particular).

For the employer, this means a more focussed and engaged workforce, with few distractions. For the employee, it means they can finally ‘enjoy’ working from home, settle into a better routine, and take the time to make sure their home office is set up as well as it can be.

There will always be benefits to being in the office at least some of the time, but working from home over this next period will be an improved version to that of working from home during the lockdown.


While we wait for a vaccine (at least 12-18 months), keeping the same work environment but making it ‘virus safe’ is going to be costly, risky, emotionally draining, and time-consuming.

Lawyers can expect to queue outside their building, appropriately socially distanced, on their allocated time of the day or day of the week while they wait for the masked security officer to call the lift. Cleaners will once again be present during office hours, working in shifts to disinfect every surface. People who used to sit side by side will now sit 3 or 4 desks apart, usually without a line of sight to any of their colleagues due to recently installed barriers between work spaces. Masked hallway monitors will stand at each corner of the floor to enforce social distancing. People will be assigned time slots for start and finish times, coffee breaks, toilet breaks, and lunches. We will likely need a workplace app that alerts us if our presence on a floor or in a meeting room causes the company to exceed the 4sqm rule, or in which we log our desire to use the bathroom so the app tells us when it is free.

Perhaps such an app could let us order our lunch for contactless delivery, let us know when it’s safe to use the kitchen, and remind us that it’s been over an hour since we last sanitised our hands.

Firms will be expected to undertake temperature checks, remove cutlery and crockery and furniture from shared areas like kitchens and hot desk areas, and even monitor wi-fi ‘heat maps’ to ensure that lawyers aren’t working too closely together when no one is looking.

Don’t forget the need to ensure the normal amount of safety at work – will people be able to exit safely in an emergency? Will the new office configuration be safe from trip hazards and line of sight risks?

Can firms, and their lawyers, have confidence in the air safety of the workplace, when we know that the virus can spread 15-20 metres in an enclosed area in the right conditions?

There seems to be an inbuilt assumption that it will necessarily be an improvement to work life for people to be back in the office, but this does not seem to be borne out by the facts.

The advantages of a shared workspace over a separate remote working environment are collaboration, collegiality, team activities, teamwork, socialising, training and emotional support.

However, the need for social distancing will make intimate conversations impossible and collaboration will need to take place in structured environments, with desks 2 metres apart and doors appropriately closed so as not to disturb others with the necessarily loud conversations.

There will be no shared coffee breaks, no shared use of the break room, no after work drinks, not to mention floor space reconfiguration to ensure the least amount of human contact possible.

There will be no ‘casual’ conversations when everyone can hear you and you are trying to stay away from everyone else, and no closing the door ‘to have a quiet chat’ in any room except the very largest in the building. Very few meeting rooms will have even the necessary 8 sqm to allow 2 people to use them at a time, let alone 12 sqm for 3 people and so on.

Hard as it may be to believe, being back in the office under these conditions will almost certainly be more stressful and less collegiate than being at home.


The truth is most professional service firms couldn’t have most of their staff returning to the office even if they wanted them to.

Many firms are already at floor space capacity, due to trends of reduced workspace per person and ‘activity based working’. With the mandated 4sqm of space requirement, a firm with an open plan office which is at or near capacity faces a future tightrope walk of managing people and managing finances.

It is not in anyone’s interests for firms to stretch themselves financially at this time.

Further, while each employer has to manage its own risks, the cost of getting it wrong is high. If the firm’s social distancing policy is inadequate or not enforced there could be an outbreak in the office.

Even employers with the best of intentions have gotten caught out by super-spreader events that defied social distancing guidelines, such as in call centres, restaurants and conferences. Firms will suffer the cost of absences, paid leave, compensation and even loss of life. In the best case scenario, the brand damage will be widespread as all media reports will name the law firm associated with an office-based cluster.


But what about clients? Will keeping everyone at home ‘send the wrong message’? In a competitive market, perceptions of strength are important. Firms want to be clearly “open for business” and to be seen to be on the front line with their clients.

We think this is a false worry, and early reports from law firms are that clients have so far been supportive. Clients are operating under the same conditions as law firms, managing the safety of their teams, and trying to get on with work. It’s very likely most of them will keep their staff home for the same reasons. Law firms who are on the front foot, being loud and proud about providing both a safe place of work and flexibility to those who want it, are going to stand out for their problem solving and pragmatism. Further, clients will not thank the firms that try to pass on their ‘Covid costs’ and will be glad to see cost effective choices being made.

Law firms who make their people happier, keep them safer, let go of the trappings of the past, and market their strength in doing so, will be known for all the right reasons.


While most firms will be locked into existing tenancies, there are certainly grounds for considering whether it’s optimal to have people return to work at all.

It would cost less to leave the office empty, or to shut down a number of floors, leaving only the largest work spaces like the boardrooms and similar large areas available as war-rooms when essential.

People who have genuinely sub-optimal working conditions at home should be given first priority to access the office (often support staff and juniors), as should those who need office facilities like the occasional property lawyer for complex printing, or litigation teams who need a war-room a few weeks out from a hearing. Lawyers who are really missing their private office could opt to return a few days a week, as long as there aren’t too many of them (unlikely!).

Forward-thinking organisations that can work remotely should continue to do so even if they are no longer ‘required’ to do so.

It is not in anyone’s interests, the firm, the staff, or the clients, for firms to make major investments in floor space reconfiguration or sub-leases to spread staff out in a Covid-safe way.

It’s a great benefit to have the flexibility to again use the office space when it is needed, but we should not blindly surge forward trying to recapture our pre-Covid days.

We believe this is the time to embrace the identity of a ‘law firm of the future’ instead of remaining a law firm of the past.

We could, if we chose to, even start to embrace a transformation in both where we work as lawyers, and how we work as lawyers. This step of embracing flexible work may be the first of many.

And attempting to re-create the office of the past while living in a post-coronavirus world has the hallmark of a law firm not yet ready to accept that things have changed forever.

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