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The rise (and success) of remote working in the UK legal sector in 2020

Last week we published our UK legal sector "State of the Workplace 2020" report in partnership with Today's Conveyancer and the Practical Vision Network. The aim of the report was to shine a light on the huge and lasting impact the events of 2020 have had on UK law firms and legal sector employees. 

We surveyed over 2500 legal professionals from a variety of specialist areas and levels of seniority and collected their thoughts, experiences and opinions on a wide array of topics. One of the most poignant topics was that of remote working. 

In this series of articles, we'll break down the key findings of our report, starting with the changes caused to the industry and its people by the huge shift towards remote working in the UK legal sector.

All the way back in March 2020, the Office of National Statistics (ONS) released findings from their Annual Population Survey (APS), which showed that 1.7 million UK workers were primarily working from home. This equates to just below 5% of the UK workforce. For comparison, five years ago, it was 4.1%. But by April, this percentage had shot all the way up to over 46%, nearly half of all working professionals in the UK. This highlights just how important workplace flexibility has been during the new normal.

But that percentage is general, including staff in retail, the service industry, and trade workers like electricians and plumbers. In other words, it includes all the people whose jobs can't be performed remotely. And it is from April, and a lot can change in seven months (particularly in 2020). 

Our research into a number of professional industries shows the percentage is much higher when you look at specific sectors. For example, over 80% of respondents to our survey have been remote working in the UK legal sector this year.

Is remote work in law firms lagging behind other sectors?

Firstly, law firms increasing their rates of remote work by so much in such a short space of time is no mean feat. 

But against other comparable sectors, our data would suggest they have actually fallen behind the trend. Further ONS findings released in May showed that the average rate of remote work in similar professional sectors at the time was 88%. After all, remote work already tended to be very popular with the majority of professional service sectors according to Buffer's State of Remote Work Report 2020 (all data collected prior to the Coronavirus pandemic). 

In order to better understand the levels of remote working in the UK legal sector, we broke down our responses by seniority of position. While most positions had telecommuting rates of over 70%, the two exceptions were partners and will-writers. This suggests that, rather than being down to slow implementation, the limits of remote work for legal professionals stem from the specific requirements of certain roles.

A significant number of law firm partners continued to work from the office through the majority of lockdown. This makes a certain amount of sense, given that they're the leaders of their organisations, and have the highest levels of engagement in law firms due to being heavily invested in the success of the business. As a result, many partners likely chose to remain centralised in order to support their newly remote staff members.

When it comes to will-writers, we've actually seen changes to the requirements of their profession unfold in real-time. Until as recently as August, will-writers were required to be physically present as a witness during a will signing. This legal obligation meant that a lot of will-writers still had to interact directly with clients and spend more time in the office despite lockdown. But now, they'll be able to use modern tools like video conferencing software and e-signing functionality to conduct their responsibilities from a distance.

This shows that law firms have generally done their best comply with government recommendations, and given that fact, the leaps and bounds they've made to get 81% of staff into remote work should be commended.

With smaller lockdowns erupting all across the UK in the wake of a hotly debated second wave, many professionals in different sectors are preparing to continue working remotely for the foreseeable future. For law firms, it's absolutely essential to understand and leverage the experiences of the 81%, so that leading partners and senior associates can manage their remote teams more effectively.

The good news is that according to our findings, almost 70% of survey respondents who worked remotely reported feeling either supported or very supported by their employers. Unfortunately though, this means that almost a third of surveyed legal professionals reported a lack of employer support despite firms having a duty of care to their employees.

In terms of communication, more than half reported the usual level they were used to receiving, whereas one fifth reported more communication than usual, and 28% received less than they were used to. So all in all, nearly three quarters report that communication is as good as or better than it was prior to lockdown.

Like many businesses, law firms have been able to take advantage of modern tools like Microsoft Teams, Zoom, and Slack to communicate regularly. Our findings also support the notion that employee support has been made a major priority by the legal sector through lockdown. However, the lack of support reported by 31% of respondents shows that firm leaders still have a lot to learn about looking after their remote staff. This is an issue of mental wellbeing stemming from a combination of work stress and a sense of social isolation. Of course, different people have different needs, so it's important for firms to take a personalised approach to supporting their employees.

Proponents of remote work insist that staff can actually be more productive when working from home, whereas others fear that employees will slack off while they're on the clock. So of course, we had to take this opportunity to look into how productive UK legal professionals have been while working from home.

The results speak for themselves. The vast majority of respondents reported being just as (if not more) productive at home compared to the office. 47% reported increased productivity, while over a third reported their usual productivity levels and less than one fifth reported a negative impact.

But as you might have guessed from our statistics on employee support and communication, managing remote team members is about more than just setting them up and watching them go. Our findings show that staff members who reported an improvement in communication were five times as likely to also report an increase in productivity. This shows how vital effective communication is for supporting employees who are remote working in the UK legal sector, and how this support can enable them to do their best work.

That's about it for part 1 in our series on the state of the UK legal sector in 2020. Next week, we'll be discussing the impact of furlough on UK firms, so if you want to stay tuned for that, we recommend bookmarking the Weekly10 blog, so you can check out our latest updates!

The full 21-page report is available free and contains a range of insights, detailed commentary and predictions for the future.