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INSIGHT: Assessing the True Value of the Evolving Remote Lawyer

July 29, 2020, 8:00 AM

As technologies change how lawyers work, the thinking behind how to assess the value of lawyers’ contributions must also evolve.

Confession from my law firm associate days: If I ran late in the morning, I’d call and ask my assistant to turn on my office lights. Appearances! That’s what mattered. My billable hours looked great on paper. But if my office lights were dark when the partners took their morning stroll down the hall, I’d still look like a slacker.

Where are our tell-tale “office lights” in today’s remote work environment? How do we know who’s chained to their desk, burning the midnight oil?

The better question is: Why do we need to? Does rewarding lawyers who work and bill a lot of hours—regardless of what they actually accomplish—even make sense?

Despite the adage that “time is money,” lawyers contribute to the success of law firms and legal department in other important ways. We must modernize the lens through which we assess the value of legal work or risk missing out on it altogether when underappreciated lawyers leave for more perceptive pastures.

Technology & Remote Work Weaken Hierarchical Structures

The work-from-anywhere approach has hacked away at outdated hierarchical structures and workplace standards. The opulent corner office isn’t so impressive when no one comes in to gawk at it. Age, hours worked, and length of service do not necessarily correlate to a lawyer’s ability to deliver results (if they ever really did).

This is especially true when law firms and legal departments use technologies that standardize processes.

  • Lawyers can establish automated workflows that ensure technology users follow appropriate courses of action and make the correct decisions based on structured input.
  • We can embed organizational business rules and policy guidelines in automated systems, which helps to automate compliance and avoid risk while reducing the manual burdens on legal teams.
  • Technology also takes over droll, time-consuming tasks like document review and contract management activities that typically burn through hours without delivering much value. Lawyers use their newfound hours to focus on higher-value activities.

Legal professionals increasingly face challenges that require heightened skills in “non-legal” areas such as communications, project management, and crisis management. We can observe the value lawyers deliver with these skills in the outcome and impact of their efforts, not how many hours they spent shuffling papers.

Refocus on Skills, Outcomes, Impact

Arbitrary indicators such as hours, behaviors, and process markers don’t help us truly determine what value looks like in law firms and legal departments.

Does an attorney exhibit strong leadership skills? Can they provide and execute a strategic vision where others see only roadblocks? As the fast pace of regulatory change exacerbates uncertainty, how significant is the impact of lawyers who excel at managing complex global concerns and establishing cross-functional relationships?

It may be impossible to quantify the value of a lawyer who creates positive cultural change in your organization by promoting—and getting others to believe in—a team-oriented approach to challenges and a unified approach to compliance. But their importance cannot be overlooked.

8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Isn’t the Only Productive Time Zone

Cloud-based software tools let us work anywhere, anytime. While work/life balance is critical, for the lawyer struck by inspiration at 4 a.m. or experiencing a flash of insight on the treadmill at 7 p.m., instant access to the mobile office through their phone or laptop is a relief, not a burden.

Software with project management features keeps an entire team informed of each other’s roles and contributions. As long as the project proceeds unimpeded, team members should be allowed to complete tasks in their timeframe. The real burden is being tied to an impossibly high—and rather arbitrary—billable hours goal, or impossibly rigid working hours and a grueling travel schedule when so many options are available now to erase the barriers of time and space.

Top achievers want to work in law firms and law departments that support a healthy work/life balance. They know it’s often an environment where their innovative contributions will be appreciated. Do you want to be the organization that focuses on hours or the one that focuses on success?

Stay Open to New Results and Innovative Ideas

Now technology allows us to measure factors that actually matter. We can collect and analyze data on many variables such as workloads, lawyer/matter ratios, and legal spend that reveal significant trends and insights. As our use of technology becomes more sophisticated, how we apply our findings to continually improve legal processes will, too.

Maybe every lawyer on your team doesn’t work 18-hour days. If that’s because they’ve significantly reduced the time it takes to negotiate contracts with new software, you’ve accomplished a considerable win. We don’t need to chain lawyers to their desks and make them sweat under soul-draining fluorescent office lights to gain value. And we no longer need to pretend we do.

We just need to keep our eyes, hearts, and minds open to appreciate what new advantages lie ahead as new technologies deliver exciting results.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.

Author Information

Olga V. Mack is the CEO of Parley Pro, a next-generation contract management company that has pioneered online negotiation technology. She focuses on improving and shaping the future of law, having led from the front lines for decades as an award-winning general counsel, operations professional, startup adviser, public speaker, adjunct professor, and entrepreneur.

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