No going back: remote working and the new normal

Even if a vaccine is found for coronavirus, will many of us want to return to the office on a regular basis? Law firms will come to recognise and respect the individual's right to choose, argues Dave Seager - but it shouldn't be at the expense of the client.
Man working from home with child
As we grow accustomed to a second lockdown, and are once again encouraged to work from home wherever possible, businesses of all kinds providing valuable professional services must consider how to do so remotely. Earlier in the year, firms and individuals had to adapt swiftly to lockdown conditions and have to fall back once again on their learnings and remote working behaviours. With a potential vaccine on the horizon at the time of writing, is remote working still seen as a transitory alternative or, in some cases, part of the new normal?

We have all become accustomed to client and team meetings in the virtual world; certainly, screen-to-screen interaction is still highly personal and effective. The question, of course, is will the majority of us want to continue that way, certainly for the elements of the process not requiring a wet signature?

From a business management perspective, whether of a financial advisory firm or a law firm, remote meetings are a cost- and time-saving option, if only to avoid unnecessary travel expense in the short term. In the long term, might firms look to save on unnecessary office costs by closing them down?

A further factor we cannot ignore is the view of individual employees. In June, a survey of over 2,500 law firm staff revealed that over 50% wanted to either work only one or two days in the office (42%) or had no desire to return to an office environment at all (10%). I have read and witnessed younger staff value the team camaraderie of the office environment; it's perhaps the more senior team members who are content to continue working from home.

For firms and individuals, there are many choices to be made, and none of them are easy. The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) has issued guidance on client confidentiality for solicitors working remotely, and has made it clear that it would expect to see documented all processes established for working with clients in this way. This means more work for the compliance officer for legal practice (COLP), who already has to implement firm-wide practices and processes expected under the new Code of Conduct for Firms.

A law firm will need to agree on remote working processes, such as for the remote execution of wills (the SRA and the Law Society have both issued guidance on this). On this subject, I would strongly urge you to speak to the financial planning partners you have selected for your third-party referrals, because they are receiving and encouraging enquiries on their clients’ wills, and will be looking to refer to a trusted and robust process.

What will assist law firms is the SRA’s timely recognition of its need to focus on how to regulate effectively law firms' increased use of technology. Whilst we do not know how the SRA will encourage and oversee this, my understanding is that we won't have to wait much longer for some indication of future policy. The regulation of technology and innovation is integral to the SRA’s 2020-23 plans, announced at the end of 2019. The situation we have found ourselves in during 2020 has made this expected guidance and planning vital for 2021.

The question of remote working is not going away. Having had to adapt and adopt more flexible policies, law firms have reported in many areas that it has not impacted on efficiencies. I hope that management and COLPs will embed the secure, compliant systems expected for sharing documents and communicating with colleagues, professional partners such as financial planners and accountants and, of course, their clients. If this is the case, we can – for now – be confident in our staff working remotely and, in the future, perhaps become comfortable with the notion that working in the office or at home will become an individual choice.

This choice should be based on the situation and the individual needs of the client. I have little doubt that all law firms, as well as financial planning firms, will want to include at least one face-to-face meeting during the advice process. Whether this is in the office at the beginning of the process – essential, perhaps, for a new client – or at the end, will vary and the use of technology will allow this. For this reason, working from home will, in my opinion, become part of the new normal, but not entirely so.

Dave Seager is managing director of SIFA Professional, which provides business and marketing support to impartial independent financial advisers who work with solicitors. SIFA Professional is a partner of the Law Society. For more information, visit our offers page.