Working from home is now a reality for many in the legal sector, where a number of top law firms are pioneering developments to make homeworking easier and more efficient. Adrienne Margolis reports on a growing phenomenon
The work/life balance is an increasingly important issue and is prompting law firms to make life easier for their hard-pressed staff. “There is an awful lot of homeworking at Freshfields,” says Hugh Crisp, the managing partner responsible for training, knowledge management and recruitment. “Every lawyer has a laptop, as do final-year students who work with us. They have access to our extranet system, so that they can keep in touch with each other and become used to working portably,” he says.Freshfields is actively in favour of homeworking. “Lawyers do not have to waste working hours coming into the office to collect a document. Now that our knowledge system is web-based, we do not have to spend as much time as we used to in training people to be able to work remotely. Using a laptop is becoming more and more intuitive,” Crisp says.“We encourage them to work from a proper set-up, with ISDN links and so on. Our thinking is that we need to adapt to their lives. If that means they need to work from home, we are committed to letting them do so.”There are many pockets of homeworking in the firm because it is part of lawyers’ lives to do some work from home, Crisp points out. If a case has to be dealt with at the weekend, for example, it is important that a lawyer does not spend time coming to and from the office to collect paperwork.Lawyers have a high level of responsibility and motivation and the issue is not where people do the work, but that it gets done. Meetings do not have to be a problem either. “We can often better organise teamwork electronically than through meetings. Freshfields is piloting PC-to-PC video, where the screen not only focuses on a person, but can also home in on documents. People working remotely can type in changes to documents during the meeting. It is an important way of maintaining contact, without having to be in the same room.”A significant proportion of the firm’s support lawyers spend at least one day a week working from home. Many of them work part time and it makes sense for them to work from home, too. “The flexibility means we keep good staff,” Crisp explains. But despite the remote working, there is a need for visibility in the workplace, says Crisp. “People must be seen and have some interaction in order to trigger ideas.”Simon Kosminsky, director of IT at SJ Berwin & Co, says that in terms of technology, there is no difference between what lawyers require when they are working remotely at home or anywhere else. “We have been setting up systems to ensure that lawyers can work fully from home if they wish to do so,” he says. But he adds that in many firms, the expectation is still that lawyers work most of the time from the office, or from client’s premises.He says homeworking is principally taking place out of normal office hours and at weekends. “On one level it falls into the category of more flexible working practices – for example, the need to work late on a deal, or handle transatlantic business.”“It was not true a few years ago, but we are now at a point where the issue of working from home is no longer one of technology,” he points out. A lawyer’s computer can be fully functional, whether it is connected up in the office, at home, in a hotel or on a train. “One stumbling block is that original documents cannot be handled, although scans and faxes go some way to solving this.” Another can be secretarial-type support: SJ Berwin & Co is working on digital dictation, where information can be recorded on a dictaphone and then sent as an e-mail and transcribed.Kosminsky warns that there is a range of issues around health and safety, and insurance that must be considered when staff work from home. “These are not necessarily given due consideration,” he says. Working conditions should be taken just as seriously as if people were in the office.When lawyers want to work at home, SJ Berwin goes through a rigorous approval process, asking whether it is appropriate for the person or the type of work. Up to 30% of the lawyers have laptops and all are offered one when their PCs are due to be replaced. The firm also has a pool of laptops and portable printers that staff can borrow to take home. “The facility is open to everyone,” says Kosminsky.Some firms are monitoring the effects of homeworking. Allen & Overy (A&O) is running a pilot project with a group of lawyers who work on project finance and PFI work. Members of the group are working at home for a certain number of days a week. “They can be flexible about when they do it,” says an A&O spokesman. There are clear implications for the firm’s use of IT and the project is being closely watched by the IT department.BT group legal services has a long history of out-of-office working. Some people ‘co-located’, which means they regularly work from more than one location, such as Brussels or London. Other lawyers are fully mobile, with no fixed offices, and some people work from home.“People are generally not working full time from home, but to enable them to do so, we have one of the largest company intranet systems in the world. It contains libraries, commercial precedents, business case procedures and contracts,” says George Ritchie, office manager of group general counsel.Lawyers have secure remote access. They gain it using a card, which generates a random number to log on. This password changes every two minutes, which drastically reduces the chances of hacking.From the company’s point of view, the work of the legal department is seamless. Where it is done does not change the job. But the legal department has a smaller percentage of homeworkers than other departments. For example, sales staff are traditionally out on the roads and this has fostered the climate for homeworking among this group.“An in-house legal department is different from a general legal practice because the lawyers are part of a business team. We do not need to hold many meetings on premises because we arrange teleconferences. We are a big user of audio conferences in particular,” says Ritchie. BT has considered whether people want to work at home five days a week. They do not have to do the entire week at home – people tend to do a mixture. “It is not a question of you go home and we will never see you again. For maximum effectiveness, lawyers are in the office when they need to be and are not when they do not,” says Ritchie. But what about the question of control over how people are working? “We have a team structure. People do not operate in isolation. Team leaders know what work needs to be done and can tell very quickly if it is not being done.”“One point of difference between in-house and commercial lawyers is that at BT, we do not bill for hours done. Why take three hours over a job if it can be done in two? There is no clock watching,” he says.
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