It has been four months since stay-at-home orders forced most in-house lawyers into quarantine as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the remote workplace serves as our new normal. While offices begin to loosen restrictions around the country, questions about the nature of the post-pandemic workplace bubble to the surface.
Most, if not all, individuals in the legal community experienced some kind of remote work prior to the pandemic. The prevalence of smartphones and VPN technology gave rise to the ability to conduct work outside of the traditional office environment. Now, this pandemic is forcing us to collectively test the possibility of remote work as a more long-term arrangement. The past few months have demonstrated to corporations that productivity does not necessarily decline when people are working from home, while also demonstrating to attorneys that less time spent on external distractions and commuting could enable us to curate a working environment better suited for each of our personal working styles. However, employers and employees alike also learned that working from home can frustrate our already volatile attempts at achieving work/life balance and the blending of personal and professional responsibilities has, at times, been disruptive. Before rushing to return to the office environment, it is important to pause, assess what we have discovered to be the positive and negatives aspects of our work-at-home experience, and determine if any elements of remote working should persist, even after the pandemic, to improve the way in-house lawyers work in the future.
Benefits and Drawbacks
So what are the benefits and drawbacks of an at-home work environment for in-house attorneys?
There are several challenges of the remote workplace. Specific to the legal profession is the loss of visceral learning experiences from other attorneys that naturally derives as a benefit of the physical office environment. The availability of in-person trainings and the ability to ask questions and socialize are lost in the remote workplace. The lack of administrative office resources or technological support at the ready presents another challenge to being able to work as efficiently. Also, some attorneys confront difficulties juggling family expectations and needs where there is no physical space devoted to or separate from work. Lastly, work from home can sometimes be misconstrued as being “always accessible” and could lead to expectations of quicker responses and turnaround times for assignments. For example, reports from organizations like the Association of Corporate Counsel concluded attorneys are working more hours now than before the pandemic.
On the other hand, there are many advantages to the remote workplace, one of which is the ability to balance personal responsibilities. This includes flexibility to allow attorneys to work around unusual scheduling conflicts in a way that works best for their families. Additionally, work from home has cut out commute time and transportation costs, a positive impact on employees’ finances. Likewise, remote working can also be cost-effective for businesses, reducing administrative and physical office space costs. These cost savings may result in a shift in funding toward resources to support legal work, such as increased training or investment in IT or research tools to help attorneys work more effectively.
What Should Stay?
So what elements of the pandemic remote workplace are likely to linger once lockdowns are lifted?
- Video and telephonic meetings—The use of video and telephonic hearings, depositions, arbitrations, and other in-person meeting forms have become a necessary yet cost-effective adjustment that could be here to stay. The pandemic has shown that effective meetings can be conducted virtually, saving time, costly travel, and office expenses.
- Paper file reduction—An increase in “environmentally friendly” workplaces can have many benefits. As the onus of printing and various secretarial and duplicating services shifted from administrative office staff to attorneys themselves, workplaces have seen both the economic and public value of creating electronically accessible documents and using document management/file sharing systems more readily. Moreover, many courts had been making the transition to electronic filing systems prior to COVID-19, and they have become more popular due to the pandemic.
- Accommodations for personal responsibilities—In-house attorneys would benefit from increased flexibility and accommodations from upper-level management for remote work. The pandemic is forcing a cultural shift, particularly in the legal profession that may have previously misconstrued remote work as a PTO day off, making it far more acceptable to work from home.
- Technological literacy as a legal skill—Further, the pandemic has shown the value of technological literacy, the need for workplace technological trainings and the importance of technological support teams. Productivity is hindered where there is technological illiteracy, and the pandemic is forcing in-house lawyers to be brought up to the same speed with respect to technology. This includes knowledge of security protections. Attorneys can use their newly developed acumen of technology to add value when it comes to resolving genuine concerns raised with respect to how to manage a corporation’s technologies and protect a corporation from security risks going forward.
Overall, the pandemic has forced an industry notoriously stubborn to change to demonstrate significant malleability. Though all of these projections are not guaranteed or suggested to occur in every workplace, it is undoubtable that the legal profession as a whole has shifted in some respect and workplace adaptations may benefit in-house lawyers in the future.
Geneva Campbell Brown is a part of the in-house counsel team at Cigna in Philadelphia. She focuses her practice on corporate transactions, including mergers and acquisitions, private equity transactions, venture capital investments, joint ventures, procurement deals and general corporate and regulatory advising within the healthcare industry.
Stephanie J. Oppenheim is a summer legal intern at Cigna. She is a second-year law student at Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law in the health law concentration. Prior to law school, she worked for a large law firm in Philadelphia as Pro Bono Fellow.