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Massachusetts Says Flexible Work Arrangements Should be the Norm

  • 8/18/2021
  • Business of law
  • 5 min read

Firms, corporate law departments, and other legal organizations all over the U.S. are deciding the best way to structure their offices as in person operations begin resuming. One major question that impacts this decision is if lawyers and other employees should be permitted to continue working from home? Last year, the pandemic rocked the economy and forced many businesses to quickly restructure their operations. Some legal organizations closed their doors or had to cut staff to stay afloat. Some were having difficulty with the quick transition to remote working. But as time went on and the dust settled, one thing became clear: lawyers and their support staff can work remotely, and they can do it well. Now,the legal industry has an opportunity to examine how permanently adopting a flexible working arrangement can help with innovation and creating a more balanced work environment. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Standing Committee on Lawyer Well-Being released a statement on June 4, 2021 addressing this topic.

The Statement on Remote Work

The pandemic has illuminated the numerous business advantages of remote working, like the ability to cut down on costs for real estate, labor, and office supplies. Many organizations have also realized how partnerships with alternative legal service providers and investment in collaboration tools can improve efficiency, trim costs, and manage risk. However, flexible working arrangements also offers benefits for individual workers and many are preferring this option going forward. The Massachusetts Committee, which was created in January 2020 with the purpose of delving into matters that can affect a lawyer’s well-being, decided that this was an important matter to address. The general message was that legal workplaces need a culture shift and the working conditions brought on by the pandemic opened the door for this transition to begin.

The guidelines suggested that organizations need to keep an ongoing commitment to the highest level of client service, accept flexibility as the standard instead of the exception, provide support that mirrors what could be found in a physical office, and eliminate stigma on those choosing flexible working arrangements. According to the Committee, this enhances company morale while also promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts. While some firms and other legal organizations were already innovating and allowing flexible working without stigma or detriment, many were only facilitating it in limited circumstances. This can make individuals feel overwhelmed or afraid to ask for help when trying to balance work with family life, disabilities, or other challenges. Now that remote work has proven effective, the notion that lawyers need to be physically present in the office every day to work at the highest capacity has been proven false.

To successfully follow these guidelines, the Committee indicated that legal management needs to update policies that make flexible working the standard model, invest in technology like collaboration platforms that facilitate remote work, have diversity in the teams that create internal policies and practices, get rid of stigma for flexible workers when dealing with matters like performance evaluations or compensation, and distribute anonymous surveys about workplace conditions to receive honest opinions.

Nationwide Influence

Massachusetts is the only state so far to provide solid recommendations in favor of flexible working. It currently seems that the industry trend for law firms is returning to in-person office work at about half capacity. However, Massachusetts is urging for this to be an option for everyone. The American Bar Association and other states have offered opinions about virtual work being ethical and authorized, however, this appears to be the first strong push for a culture shift favoring remote working and making it the norm. It will be interesting to see if other states follow suit and other unique ways that this issue could come about – perhaps in ethical and civil disputes surrounding a lawyer’s reduced hours or termination when pushing to work remotely? Or a new trend emerging in recruitment efforts focusing on flexible working arrangements that also focus on diversity and inclusion? Regardless, the push for flexible work is definitely a nationwide concern in the legal industry that will only be more prominent as more organizations jump on board and offer expanded remote capabilities.

Allowing employees to choose full or part time remote work is a needed step for firms and other legal organizations to continue on the path of transformation. Legal operations teams and management need to work this into recruitment efforts, legal spend, information governance initiatives, real estate considerations, and business plans. Failure to embrace this type of working model will place organizations behind the curve competitively and risk losing valuable talent. Remember, drastic changes like this will take time, especially in an industry that is historically resistant to shaking up how things have always been done. To prioritize transformation and avoid reverting to unsustainable working standards, there needs to be an elevated level of accountability, evaluation, and transparency. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Standing Committee on Lawyer Well-Being intends to conduct an accountability survey in a year to determine whether the legal community embraced their recommendations and observe progress.Other states need to monitor this, see if their own committees take similar stances, and pay attention to general shifts happening throughout the legal industry.

If you enjoyed this blog, consider reading COVID-19: The Catalyst for Digital Transformation

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