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Commercial Question

Lawyer-client relationships in the age of Teams

updated on 06 October 2020

Question

How will business relations change in the age of remote working and videoconferencing calls?

Answer

The government’s response to the covid-19 pandemic has fast-tracked the transition to remote working. Meetings in-person being substituted with virtual meetings is one example of a wide shift of the way business is being conducted. Business relationships that were traditionally built in and around the office have been transferred onto pixelated displays and delayed audio. This is a unique time where all office workers, from corporate clients to legal advisers and their employees, are presented with the same challenges and opportunities from en masse working from home (WFH).

Effective team working relies on good communication, an understanding of everyone’s roles, emotional intelligence and clear objectives. Virtual meetings have been essential to bridging the gaps created by office decentralisation. This has enabled co-workers to work together and interact in a way more akin to a day in the office, while enjoying their home comforts and removing the need for long commutes or risking covid-19 infection.

Before the pandemic, legal advisers that were regularly working remotely were usually only working from home, or from their client’s office, once or twice a week. This either improved work-life balance, or allowed business relationships to strengthen through developing a greater understanding of the client’s needs, while providing an additional opportunity for law firms to promote their expertise.

Working from home

Some will be pleased about the end to commuting, increased free time available from homeworking and a relaxed dress code. Others might find the experience isolating with the lack of guidance, supervision, and networking opportunities afforded to them. Moreover, those with difficult working conditions due to insufficient space, childcare responsibilities or ongoing duties to dependents may find additional pressures from WFH. Consequently, social isolation may occur particularly for those living alone, as a video call cannot replace interactions in person and the sense of unity and camaraderie felt when in the company of inspiring and driven people.

Similarly, the environment in which lawyer-client relationships once thrived has changed with lockdown and social distancing measures. Sporting events and group dinners once acted as friendly, informal settings that boosted the success of business relationships. Now the absence of in-person networking and interactions has caused some businesses to reassess these associations. This is prevalent where clients are undergoing restructuring or following a revision of their annual legal budget due to the pandemic. Even law firms eager to preserve their client relationships with virtual wine and cheese tasting evenings will be litmus tested against factors of cost, value and reliability.

Internally, commercial firms will vary in their approach and speed in allowing for workers to return to the office. Ensuring that adequate safety measures are in place remains a high priority. In turn, a safe environment aids the gradual return to the office and in the long term permits stronger ties to be built within the business.

Lessons to learn

The difficulty of visibility that comes with WFH, coupled with the ever-increasing pressure on lawyers to be efficient, could potentially lead to lawyers finding themselves working and being contactable all hours of the day. A mismatch in expectations is detrimental to healthy work relationships. Here, balance and communication are paramount. Managing expectations and a simple out-of-office notification of your availability will help to avoid any misunderstandings of unresponsiveness during working hours. As a result, home workers need to ensure an appropriate separation between home and work. During work hours, it is also important to take regular breaks away from computer screens and to stretch after prolonged periods of being seated. Firms alert to there being fewer distractions from WFH, which would otherwise be caused by the ebb and flow of colleagues around the office, have offered virtual exercise classes to support healthy work-life integration.

The migration to WFH and cloud-based working has highlighted the importance of technology in the workplace. The surge in demand for secure and dependable networks is echoed across the legal industry. Firms should make large investments in their IT infrastructure, or risk swathes of their employees being lost in an informational abyss or worse, relegated to a dial-up connection.

Hackers and phishing emails will undoubtedly look to exploit the inexperienced and those with weak security systems during this mass migration. Recently, a law firm was unfortunate enough to be embroiled with hackers who claimed to have stolen 756 gigabytes of data for a ransom of $42 million. The pecuniary and reputational damage is certainly not one clients would find impressive. Nonetheless, commercial firms will continue exploring creative ways to engage with clients.

Commercial law firms are generally made up of a wide age range of individuals with varying levels of computer literacy. The rise of instant messaging and its integration within the workplace has promoted greater employee engagement through friendly informal communication which complements other forms of communication. For instance, it is far easier to discreetly send someone an instant message for additional information than to interrupt the conference call.

Despite the benefits of instant messaging, it is not without its pitfalls. Like a picture, a meme can convey a thousand words but sticking to “Hi” in Arial font will avoid confused looks or raised eyebrows. Humour captures attention, deepens the memory of your point and boosts morale, but it’s also subjective and offence can easily be taken. Users trying to be personable should be mindful not to overshare or of being perceived as unprofessional. Although most people will be adept at recognising non-verbal cues, deciphering the mood and tone of an email remains an art form.

Looking ahead

Remote working has changed the way in which existing relations are maintained and new relationships are built. The home office has taken centre stage for a more informal setting in which people will get to know one another. Videoconferencing from home has brought a relaxed demeanour to the way business is conducted, allowing for colleagues and clients to share glimpses into each other’s personal lives. Certainly, there will be an adjustment period before everyone becomes accustomed to the norms and social rules of online connectivity, but law firms will continue employing imaginative ways to improve relationships with clients and among its employees. In 2020, working from home has paved new opportunities for work relationships to grow, and for many a moment to appreciate those we have around us.

Aaron Lee is a trainee solicitor at Burges Salmon, currently sitting in the banking team.