AI, Hybrid Working, And The Move Towards A More Inclusive Legal Sector
Being a lawyer has always been an aspirational career choice. But a career in law has often meant long hours spent in the office, missed important family occasions and for many, an almost non-existent work-life balance.
Eleanor Weaver, CEO at Luminance, explains why allowing lawyers greater autonomy over their work environment boosts the legal sector’s potential for improved inclusivity.
For some, the pandemic only exacerbated this issue as remote working blurred the lines between people’s personal and professional lives. But for others, the past year has completely shifted their day-to-day routines. Technology has allowed them to conduct their work with more rigour and speed than ever before and crucially, from any location. And by allowing lawyers to have more autonomy over their working environment, the legal sector has the potential to become more inclusive.
Historically, the lack of flexible working opportunities has disproportionately affected women over men. McKinsey found that female attorneys feel forced to make significant trade-offs between career success and their personal lives, with only 44% of women surveyed believing that they could achieve a good balance between both. Indeed, despite the fact that in 2019, 52% of new entrants to the solicitors’ profession in the UK were women, this figure fell to only 19% at equity partner level. Enforced office working can also make a career in law inaccessible for individuals who are disabled or chronically ill. Just 3% of solicitors in the UK have a disability, even though approximately 19% of the working-age population is disabled.
But the pandemic has highlighted just how agile and forward-looking the legal industry can be when it comes to working patterns and practices. Many firms have turned to technology that allows them to access their documents, respond to urgent legal issues and collaborate with teams, whether they are at their desk in the office or at their kitchen table. And now, growing numbers of world-leading firms such as Linklaters, Norton Rose Fullbright and Freshfields have stated their support of longer-term remote and flexible working practices.
And they are right to – it’s been proven that work can be completed to the same standard when working remotely as if the whole team were physically together in an office. In fact, I was recently talking to a firm that had to complete a Data Subject Access Request on behalf of a client whilst working remotely because of Covid-19. The Innovation Manager told me afterwards that by using AI, they were “able to maintain workload capacity and meet tight deadlines.” He went on to say that “during that critical period, technology had never been so important.”
For firms looking to attract and retain top talent moving forward, embracing flexible working patterns will be a critical enabler. A study by Timewise found that 91% of women either work flexibly or want to, and a survey of over 100 disabled lawyers conducted by the Law Society of England and Wales found that 70% of those surveyed would prefer to continue working remotely in the long-term. For many women, having the option to work from home enables them to balance their work and family lives, moulding their schedules to make it easier to manage their day-to-day needs. With increasing numbers of women or disabled lawyers remaining in practice, firms will have more opportunities to promote them into senior roles, in turn improving the diversity and culture of their businesses in the long term.
And it is not just women and disabled lawyers who will benefit from the greater use of tech – junior lawyers are increasingly factoring in technology when applying for jobs. Where firms use AI to automate the review process, rather than having associates trawl through thousands of documents, junior lawyers are exposed to more projects faster, building up their experience. I was recently speaking to Tanja Podinic, Assistant General Counsel at Dentons, who told me that: “we [Dentons] need to make sure we are adopting technology like Luminance because the upcoming generation are expecting it.” Clearly, technology is now a significant pull factor for young people.
The business case for greater flexibility in a post-Covid world is self-evident, and technology is a key enabler in making more flexible working patterns not only viable, but effective. By adopting these patterns, firms will be able to retain top talent who were previously disadvantaged by the system, driving profit overall.