The pandemic has transformed legal work… to an extent. But the journey must continue

I was interviewed last year about how our legal department coped with the pandemic hit. I talked about how we adapted to remote work far better than expected, and the big role that tech played in making it all pretty seamless. That type of story is well told now. But, let’s be honest, there are a few more chapters on hybrid working to be written yet.

If you work in corporate legal, I’m sure you’ll agree that there’s always ‘more to do’. Long hours, long task lists, pressure to do more with less. And until recently, technology played a fairly minor role in how we got things done. The industry has been relatively slow to get onboard with digitalisation as a means of boosting productivity.

Technology for good

At Thomson Reuters, we did make some progress pre-2020. Our legal team is large and global, so we were already working on ways to centralise our materials and processes digitally. The pandemic accelerated those efforts. It really changed our mindset on the role of technology – and we were soon exploring what else it could do, like prioritising our work more intelligently.

I sometimes smile at how we used to do things – like taking it in turns to read out our to-do lists in team meetings. It’s very different now. We’ve got more sophisticated tools that help manage our resources dynamically, and we do far more real-time collaboration thanks to the cloud.

Hybrid working has also given us far more flexibility over how we manage our time. For example, one member of my team recently adjusted her hours so she can volunteer her time giving humanitarian aid. It’s great that people are able to manage their day-to-day legal work alongside activities that contribute more widely to society.

Distance still to travel

Yet the flipside of hybrid working is that boundaries have become blurred. I’ll freely admit that my work-life balance needs attention. In fact, it’s probably become a lot worse since the pandemic began. I find it very difficult to switch off from work, and not to start responding to emails after dinner or over breakfast.

While technology may have liberated work from the confines of a ‘place’, it has also brought work into our private ‘space’. I’m hopeful that we can find ways to balance that in the coming years, and I’m keen to hear how other legal departments are managing it.

Getting more personal

Another impact of hybrid working, which we hear a lot about, is the loss of face-to-face interaction. That ability to walk up to someone and ask a basic question, or to empathise with a colleague about their caseload over a coffee, has diminished.

Like many managers, I’ve tried to offer virtual alternatives. For example, I keep an open slot in my calendar everyday so people can call me about anything, no matter how trivial. And both within our team and across the organisation, we’ve implemented all sorts of social and wellness schemes to try and keep us connected.

But it does make me think about the long-term implications. Given that hybrid working is here to stay – people entering the job market simply expect it by default – should we even try to replicate those ‘old’ aspects of work? Should we be thinking about our professional interactions and relationships in a whole new way?

Much is talked about offices becoming more like hubs or destinations, used primarily for specific in-person activities or events. I can definitely see that happening. But there are flipsides to that as well.

Certain employees may not have the space or right conditions to work from home, meaning they’ll go to those hubs fairly regularly. While others, who are fortunate to have a comfortable home office, will typically stay away. Could that create a demographic divide within the workforce?

Similarly, could hybrid working disproportionately hold women back from career progression? Those who need to balance work and family needs by working at home could miss out on key in-person events or opportunities that would help their development.

Momentum for change

So, I’ve probably opened more questions here than answers! But I do believe that’s the phase we’re in right now – with many uncertainties to work through, and many possibilities not yet fully explored.

The pandemic pushed us all to embrace digitisation and let go of past practices, but the new has not yet totally eclipsed the old. Therefore, I see the next phase of transformation as the most exciting one to date, with a big focus on making hybrid work better for people.

Alex Graydon has been a commercial lawyer for over 20 years. She began her legal career as a know-how officer in a City firm of solicitors, going on to become a legal publisher at Sweet & Maxwell, Thomson Reuters’ book-publishing arm.

After a period in private practice as a corporate and commercial lawyer, Alex returned to Thomson Reuters, where she is now assistant general counsel based in London. She is presently working on a change programme to transform the delivery of legal services using automation, collaboration and knowledge tools and solutions offered by Thomson Reuters.

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