It has been a little over a year since the transition to remote work for many law departments.
Many worried the shift from office to home would be challenging. Were corporate systems able to support employees in far flung locations? Could managers oversee day-to-day work and ensure productivity? Would employees’ relationship with co-workers and loyalty to their companies weaken?
A year in, new data from two EY surveys suggests many of these concerns were premature. Remote work has gone better than expected for most. However, as workplaces reopen, law departments will find that their employees have new expectations about work. They have learned that new, more flexible, ways of working are possible and will be hesitant, or even unwilling, to go back to pre-pandemic normal. This presents challenges and opportunities for law departments.
First the good news. The 2021 EY Work Reimagined Employee Study, which was based on an extensive survey of more than 16,000 individuals, including over 200 law department staff, suggests in-house counsel are broadly happy with how their companies have managed the transition to remote work.
Nearly two thirds believe that remote work has increased productivity. Eighty-two percent report job satisfaction. Most (93%) say that they are likely to stay with their current organization for at least the next year. Importantly, law department employees also say their company culture has improved since the beginning of the pandemic.
While the data suggests that most employees are happy with their new working conditions, it also shows a change in expectations. After a year of working from home employees want greater flexibility. Within corporate legal departments, nine out of 10 employees report a desire for increased flexibility in both where and when they work. Importantly, most law department employees (54%) say they are likely to quit their current jobs, if they are not offered the flexibility they want.
These new expectations may create challenges for law departments. Research shows that remote work can boost employee morale and short-term productivity. However, it also reveals longer term concerns related to remote work—including detrimental effects on collaboration, innovation, and knowledge transfer. Within the context of a law department, where information sharing is key to risk management efforts, these findings are concerning.
While law departments have managed the past 12 months well, this research shows that a permanent shift toward more remote work could have a detrimental impact on their effectiveness. A lack of face-to-face interaction could weaken teaming. Less oversight and weaker knowledge transfer could thwart leaders’ efforts to drive greater process consistently. Most worryingly, more siloed remote work could lead to a decline in transparency into the legal risks that companies face.
The Future of Law
To manage these challenges, law department leaders need to adopt new ways of working that balance employees’ desire for flexibility with overall business goals. Findings from the 2021 EY Law Survey of law departments, developed with the Harvard Law School Center on the Legal Profession, suggests greater use of process management, technology, and new sourcing methods will be key to getting this balance right.
Law department leaders will need to implement new policies and procedures to ensure that they understand how their employees’ remote work impacts business’ risks. Establishing consistent and effective processes will be key. Technology that enables transparency and knowledge sharing will be vital.
Worryingly, this EY research reveals that while general counsel believe technology has significant potential to provide cost savings, efficiency and risk mitigation, only 6% say they have the data and technology they need. This suggests significant work remains undone.
Addressing the challenges of a permanent shift to remote work offers law departments an opportunity to rethink how work is handled. Many of the respondents were concerned about the type of work that fills employees’ days. Most concerning was the fact that one in every five hours is dedicated to low complexity and routine work.
In fact, 87% of general counsels reported that their department spends too much time on such tasks. Concerningly, they also reported that this work creates talent challenges. Nearly half (47%) say it is hurting employee morale. This data suggests that law department leaders should rethink where and when in-house counsel work, and the kinds of work they perform.
Identifying new sourcing methods to better align work with the appropriate talent could help increase morale, improve efficiency, and shift in-house counsels’ time to more productive tasks.
The transition back to work offers law department leaders a chance to rethink their pre-pandemic operating model and accelerate transformation. Putting employee enablement at the center of this will be key. The past year has caused many in-house counsels to rethink what work should look like. Law department leaders should be equally bold in rethinking how their department should operate and how they can enable their employees’ success.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs,Inc. or its owners.
Paula Hogéus is the leader to the EY Global Labor & Employment Law team.
Nicholas Bruch is the leader of the EY Global Tax and Legal Analyst team.
The views reflected in this article are the views of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the global EY organization or its member firms.