Change. Some people love it, some people loathe it. In my experience, lawyers are not great with it. But change happens, and there is a lot of it about at the moment. Whether it is working from home, reducing working hours, or even redundancy, the legal profession is seeing a change.
We are also experiencing economic change. Just as there are no longer 2650 cotton mills in Lancashire, and the docks on the Thames no longer comprise the world’s largest port, so the economy evolves. When container ships could no longer sail down the Thames, the docklands fell into decline, and, within 20 years, they became an Enterprise Zone. Today, we see the former wharfs and quays taken over by a completely different economy.
This time is not the weavers or the dockhands, but the lawyers who are experiencing change first-hand after six months enforced working from home. Economic times are changing again, and businesses are seeing that many people do not have to go to the office to carry out their roles. I am not making light of job losses brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic; they will hurt as much as they did when the dockworkers could not find employment. But pretending we could or should all return to the office as it was only 6 months ago is short-sighted; and fails to recognise that this change can present new opportunities within the legal profession.
Just over 70 years ago, self-service supermarkets did not exist. As they started to emerge the country mourned the loss of the local shopkeeper. When supermarkets started using automated tills in the 1990’s, the nation mourned the loss of the checkout operator. Now a large majority of people order their groceries online to be delivered to the door. The same transition is happening in legal office life.
Many of those who work for law firms have shown that they do not need to go to the office in order to fulfil their roles. They can deliver the same services online.
There has been much publicity about behemoth chains such as Costa and Pret shedding jobs if city office workers do not go back to the office. Meanwhile Amazon has announced 7,000 new jobs, the Co-op has announced 1,000 new jobs, and even the Lego store has announced it is opening 120 more outlets. This is an absolute reflection of changes to the way we live, and the legal profession needs to catch up. Do not forget that within 30 years, where the shiny offices in Canary Wharf now stand proud, once ships were made.
And it is the shiny, empty, office buildings in central London which the Government is clamouring for lawyers (and of course other office workers) to return to. It is pleading with people who have been displaced from the city by unaffordable housing, to re-start commuting into it so that they can resume buying takeaway coffees again.
Commercial rents in London have increased exponentially in the last few years, and yes, there will be a blow to landlords’ pockets. But there is a part of me that thinks they have somewhat brought it on themselves. Commercial landlord greed has meant law firms leasing city centre offices have to justify expensive office space, ergo they want their lawyers back in the office to justify that expenditure. As soon as these firms start to realise that they do not need that expenditure, and their teams can work remotely with fewer bums on seats in the office, the world will shift again. That is what happens; this is change and it has been happening since the industrial revolution.
I suggest we embrace it, dive head long into it, and make the most of this golden opportunity. It should not be a badge of pride that some city lawyers work upwards of 12 hours a day and need to have concierge services within the building to make up for the lack of personal time. During the industrial revolution laws were passed to limit workers to working 12-hour days, yet here is our legal profession seemingly applauding such endeavours. The financial rewards maybe greater these days, but what of mental and physical health? Are they less important than money?
The last 6 months has proved, hands down, that lawyers can work from home. It has shown that there is no need to compromise physical and mental well-being, and personal time, whilst practising law.
Increased acceptability of working from home will help the legal profession close the gender pay gap. The anachronistic situation whereby the breadwinner commutes to the city office whilst the primary caregiver works locally part time or relinquishes their career altogether because childcare is unaffordable on top of a second commute, will fall away. Careers can be pursued rather than curtailed.
At Cognitive Law we do not have big swanky office space that needs to be filled, which reduces our overheads and enables us to pay our solicitors 70% of everything they bill. Head office staff can work wherever they choose. I trust them to do their jobs. I would not have hired them if I did not trust them.
We were lucky in March when the Government told us to turn the lights off and close the office door behind us. That was literally all we needed to do. The remote working infrastructure was in place. We were ahead of the curve, and I am so proud of how we have all held it together during this pandemic. No job losses, no pay cuts, just business as usual.
So, if you are or you know of an experienced solicitor who is losing their job, or the will to live if they must return to the office, please get in touch. Becoming a self-employed consultant solicitor is risky, of course it is, but why not make this the time to embrace change and make a new life out of it. Now could be the time to fulfil lifelong dreams like working for yourself, getting a dog, practicing Pilates, doing the school run every day, or even just having a lie on a Monday morning. But whatever takes your fancy in your increased free time, I implore you not to miss a genuine once in a lifetime opportunity to embrace change.