Being a lawyer today looks starkly different than the traditional model of lawyering we saw just 10 or 20 years ago. Technology has dramatically changed how law is practiced and what it means to be a lawyer — whether in-house or at a law firm. And this change is especially evident both in terms of being connected to the office at all times and the increased ability to access information and data anytime, from anywhere.
Spurred by that connectivity, long days at the office are increasingly giving way to more flexible arrangements. Remote work in the corporate legal space is a real possibility, as the digital transformation occurring in other sectors has now sufficiently proven itself to an industry long trained to mitigate risk and be overly cautious in adopting new technologies.
Flex Is the New Normal
Every day, lawyers take rideshare services to work, order food online, and store documents in the cloud. These innovative service delivery models that have disrupted other industries have had a direct influence on the new work models we’re now seeing in the legal space. While lawyers may tend to be risk averse, they’ve seen through the examples of these other industries how traditional services can be delivered in non-traditional ways, often more cheaply and with better results.
Once lawyers saw the benefits of alternative work models in society at large, seeing how non-traditional solutions can work in the legal space was the next logical step. These technological advancements led to the recognition that flexible, remote work have to didn’t mean lower-quality work. This in turn has led to increased work flexibility in the legal profession.
Of course, flexibility sometimes comes at a price. With the advent of technologies like email, cloud storage, and mobile devices, the expectation that lawyers would be reachable at all hours, no matter where they were, quickly followed. Gone are the days when missing the last mail pickup of the day because your documents weren’t ready to be sent meant that you might as well go home. Instead, lawyers were now often expected to work all night.
There was an upside, too. As more lawyers began capitalizing on tech-enabled opportunities to open solo practices or otherwise take control of where they work, they also began to decide when and how much they work.
Making Flexible Legal Work Possible
In the early decades of the computer revolution, being a successful corporate lawyer typically required working from a physical office at a big law firm in a large city. I experienced this firsthand after graduating from law school in 2008.
My Big Law experience was highly rewarding in terms of the work, the colleagues, and the clients. However, as in every large firm, many lawyers spent much of their day handling emails and phone calls from their office, often with other people who were in the same building but who they didn’t ever see face to face. As a practical matter, these lawyers could have been performing the exact same work if they were working remotely. And when it became clear that their work product wasn’t suffering, many in Big Law began to question why they couldn’t work remotely all the time. However, lawyers who wanted a more flexible work arrangement or a career path outside of the traditional partnership track had few options other than to depart Big Law and make their own way.
Over time, remote work became a perk that firms would offer, hoping to attract top talent who saw that flexibility as desirable. Soon, lawyers took flexibility a step further, wondering why, if you can connect instantaneously and have the same capabilities from home as you can at the firm, they couldn’t work remotely more often. Today, as the legal industry becomes more comfortable with certain technologies, the trend toward flexible work arrangements continues to grow.
The Technologies at Play
The transformation of the internet from curiosity to ubiquity made it possible for lawyers to practice law in totally different ways than were possible even in recent history. The advent of email started the transition by allowing a faster, more efficient, and more accessible means of communication.
The evolution of cloud computing and storage made remote work even easier, as it made remote access possible on a broad scale, not just for one-off projects. The final pieces of the flexible work puzzle were virtual private networks and other security measures that made employers comfortable with providing remote access.
Today’s various messaging tools have taken the convenience of email even further, providing multiple means of instantaneous remote communication and playing a major role in allowing geographically dispersed teams to function well. They are critical to helping to build a remote-comfortable culture in the legal industry.
What Lies Ahead: Scalable & Flexible Practices
The increased adoption of AI, machine learning, and other technologies will continue to pave the way for more widespread acceptance of non-traditional work models in legal. Law firms and legal departments will see an increased ability to scale teams up or down as needed, creating the best possible teams of lawyers that can produce high-quality work at any time and from any location.
In the same way that cloud computing is now a standard feature of many law offices, legal software powered by AI and machine learning will eventually become a mainstay in the industry and will further help to free lawyers from traditional work models and allow them to work on more important matters.
Further, law firms that acquire a forward-looking vision for their tech-enabled workforce will gain competitive advantage in hiring and retention, while firms that refuse to adapt to the new, flexible work landscape will see their talent pool diminish.