With offices across the UK having been closed for many months of this year, the subsequent adoption of remote working systems considered the question of what a return to the physical work place would look like. The nature of the work in law firms is understood to have adjusted well to the new manner in which it had to be carried out. Moreover, how it has adapted to utilise technology has facilitated a varied return to the office as it was confirmed that largely, such work was effectively carried out in either remote settings or in person. Therefore, whether the recent increase in cases of COVID-19 has threatened a return to the office for law firms also brings into question the extent to which firms have been returning thus far.
The reopening of law firm offices has been limited, as is the case for most office-based jobs, and in line with current coronavirus guidelines. It became apparent that working in any office capacity would have to be different from the practice that companies had previously been used to. The priority of firms is to ensure that any return to the office would be safe and prevent the risk of further Covid-19 transmission. The necessity of social distancing has influenced the way in which many laws firms are and have been reopening their office spaces. The Law Society released a framework displaying and concerning the guidance published by the government on offices.
Many law firms are introducing a phased reopening of office spaces, such that work will continue both remotely for some, and in the office for others. Law firms with offices also based in other countries have seen people returning to them in compliance with the government advice in that country. As part of a staggered reopening, those who had returned to offices were often people who were unable to work from home and accordingly, those who were able to, continued to work from home where possible (although the guidance on this given was later updated as law firms could have greater decision on such arrangements). In some firms, employees are returning on an alternate week or time period basis. Allen & Overy and Linklaters are two examples of firms who have reopened in a phased manner. Slater and Gordon’s London office, it was announced, would give way to mostly remote working once the lease ended in September. Overall, the return to the office for law firms has naturally been one of caution and not an immediate or full return of all employees.
As many law firms have returned only partially as of yet, the increase in cases of COVID-19 would not likely cause such a large change in the way in which firms operate at present. This is because many people still continue to work from home. Furthermore, it is evident that law firms have been able to adjust to working remotely and any further delays to reopening or longer periods of remote-working may potentially see the future of the legal industry shift more permanently to a technologically based sphere of work.
~ Trinity Batt, The Student Lawyer