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Navigating the Digital Geography of Remote Work in Legal

Sam Bock

Editor's Note: Originally published in November 2017, this article is only becoming more relevant as the remote work community continues to grow across industries. Good management and strong collaboration can help your organization take advantage of this new way to attract and retain talent in the competitive legal marketplace.

“Neither here nor there.”

Like many idioms once penned by William Shakespeare, this one has maintained its echo through the centuries. And like many idioms in general, it’s seen its fair share of applications. This one, though, is a particular example of just how much the world has changed since Billy’s verbose tragedies premiered with all-male casts on a sunlit stage.

In our ultra-connected culture, the philosophy of “neither here nor there” has more professional prevalence than ever. Given an internet connection and the right devices, many typical “desk jobs” can now be performed from anywhere: in an office, at home, or even on an RV. According to a Gallup survey conducted in 2016, 43 percent of employed Americans said they spent at least some time working remotely—up from 39 percent in 2012.

Voicing a common refrain on the “why” of remote work, Jim Oviyach—an e-discovery application specialist—points out the natural portability of his work: “Almost any job that relies on technology lends itself to remote working. You're already using the very same tools. It doesn't really matter where.”

With e-discovery living in tech, and as the legal space is disrupted and digitized by technology, the lines between “here” and “there” are blurring.

Cutting Costs and Driving Diversity

Though the legal field has been relatively slow to participate in this trend, law firms are beginning to see the benefits of flexible work arrangements. For one, there’s the drop in real estate costs—an opportunity government agencies are also seizing.

Additionally, flexible policies offer competitive advantages to potential employers scouting for top talent.

“It’s not a 9-to-5 world anymore,” points out Phil Favro, a consultant at Driven. “Often, especially in this space, employers want 24-hour flexibility. That should go both ways. You need to strike a happy medium for everyone’s sake.”

Once that talent is in-house, keeping it becomes a priority nearly as critical as meeting revenue goals. It’s universally known that turnover is expensive—and in a field as specialized and competitive as legal practice, that’s especially true.

According to an article from Law Practice Today, “Associate retention is a top priority for many law firms.” As firms scramble to retain top talent, the competition is growing.

“Attorneys increasingly have options to practice law in a way that fits into their lives, whether in a traditional firm or in an alternative practice model,” noted the article’s authors: Kate Mayer Mangan, Erin Giglia, and Laurie Rowen. In a survey of professionals who’d left at least one legal employer, the authors found that a culture that embraces more flexible work arrangements can make a real difference in retention: “Law firm leadership that resolve to retain associates can make these changes from the top down, or they can continue to lose top talent to virtual firms, secondment firms, accordion companies, and other alternative practice models that have entered the legal marketplace.”

In no small portion, working mothers are impacting the retention statistics affected by remote opportunities—so improving upon these policies can also help firms close the gender gap that’s especially prevalent in the legal field.

Expanding Business Horizons

As it turns out, allowing employees to enjoy different horizons can mean bigger horizons for businesses, too.

Phil, who is based in Utah while Driven is headquartered in Virginia, represents an important presence for his company: “Before I came on board, we didn’t have a consultant based in the west. The arrangement is really helpful because I’m familiar with the area, and I understand what clients are looking for not just from a nuts-and-bolts e-discovery perspective, but also from a local legal and cost perspective.”

Law firms, especially, are in a unique position to open new practice areas via remote hires. As client demands and the legal profession evolve, new practice areas are emerging—especially in areas of technological innovation. The option to hire remote attorneys and support staff, as in many industries, means wider opportunities to recruit when new talent is needed.

“Allowing remote work allows a company to choose from a much larger talent pool. Instead of choosing from the best people who are willing and able to commute to the office every day, a much wider net can be cast,” Jim notes.

In fact, some firms are taking on a fully virtual or hybrid structure. For example, Taylor English Duma—an Atlanta-based firm—announced plans this year to hire attorneys across the country. The idea is to give these remote lawyers the same support as those onsite, including compensation models, paths to equity partnership, and assistance from other staff.

At Relativity, offering remote work options for employees in our engineering group or with specialized skill sets has a lasting impact on the evolution of the business: “Getting competent in collaborating with remote members of a team is a skill that will enable us to recruit talent from a wider landscape,” explains Dorie Blesoff, chief people officer at the company. “Because we’re now a global business, learning best practices like time zone balancing and incorporating live video feeds into meetings helps us engage more effectively with those who are part of our work community across the globe.”

No Easy Button

Though these benefits might be difficult to resist, it’s important to note that a few complications come with remote teams as well. Working with a remote attorney can be as easy as hitting “send,” but it takes careful effort to achieve that accessibility.

To minimize obstacles, hiring managers recruiting a remote team member need to seek out the traits that make telecommuting effective. (Fortunately for those in e-discovery, tech-savviness is a shared requirement for both the work and the location.)

For fully and partially remote team members, there’s no small expense in ensuring they have the right technological setup at their home office. Although bring-your-own-device policies can empower the employee to take charge of this process, this approach isn’t without pitfalls. For the law firm or service provider who wants to take special caution in protecting sensitive client data, robust cybersecurity practices are crucial. Of course, this is true in and out of the office, so working to improve security in either space will benefit both.

“It's important to note—but often isn't—that the common risks don't go away when remote work isn't allowed. Social engineering, bad password policies, and network vulnerability are still very real and present dangers at the home office,” Jim cautions. “Companies need to be vigilant no matter what.”

Perhaps the most talked-about consideration with remote work focuses on culture. How can teams ensure continuous communication and equal opportunity for onsite and remote employees? What practices are critical for ensuring collaboration doesn’t suffer?

“It is harder to build relationships when people aren’t meeting in person,” says Dorie. “We need to pay close attention to ensure connectivity when those joining a meeting are spread out. If remote team members don’t have a chance to speak up on the call or see whatever visuals are being shown, we miss opportunities to connect with one another and embrace everyone’s talents.”

“Many companies focus too much on technology and not enough on process,” says Sean Graber, co-founder and CEO of Virtuali, in an article for the Harvard Business Review. “This is akin to trying to fix a sports team’s performance by buying better equipment.”

One non-issue, though, is productivity. It’s broadly acknowledged that, given the right hires, setup, and culture, remote work can be at least as productive as traditional work.

Bottom Line

We’ve seen enough to know that this trend isn’t going away—and that its benefits aren’t to be overlooked. As your team closes one year and considers what goals to set and changes to make in the next, don’t overlook the value of flexibility for your colleagues, your organization, and your work.

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Sam Bock is a member of the marketing team at Relativity, and serves as editor of The Relativity Blog.