The case for distributed teams in law firms
What if I told you there was a way your legal firm could cut overheads, keep clients happy and grow? There is a way, but it will require you to:
think outside the box;
trust your team; and
The solution is to implement a wholly or hybrid distributed team. The incorporation of a distributed workforce into your firm would allow you to employ from a national (or international) talent pool without increasing the need for additional real estate to house them in.
Provided the structure of your firm, its workflow and document management procedures permit it and the metrics of the employee (such as seniority and the ability to work autonomously) meet your requirements, there is a strong case for employing a distributed team. Recent advances in technology have removed the barriers that caused us to gather collectively in offices and allow for more communication by video, chat and other features.
Below, I look at the key features of distributed teams and how they can benefit your firm or in-house legal team.
What is a distributed team?
A distributed team is any team that does not work in the same place.
A hybrid distributed team is a team where some of the team work from a head office and other team members work from different locations, such as a branch office and other remote locations like home.
A wholly distributed team does not have a central office and all team members work from independent locations.
Which is the correct term – remote or distributed?
In my work in the flexible space I have seen the word “distributed” used in favour of “remote” to describe disbursed teams in recent times. This is because the word “remote” can imply that the team members who do not work in the central (or head) office are seen as different to the team members working at head office. I am of the view that, while it might seem like semantics at first blush, this is an important distinction to make to ensure all team members are seen as equal to one another.
Having worked as a Practice Leader (Partner equivalent) in a law firm for 4 years remotely in Australia for LegalVision Australia I know first hand the importance of ensuring the “remote” team feel included in the day to day running of the firm. A distributed team must feel that they are as valued to the organisation as their head office counterparts.
The benefits of a distributed team
A distributed team can increase your talent pool, increase employee engagement and retention, improve your employee’s lives and cut your overheads. It’s an impressive claim to make and one that deserves a much deeper dive.
Increasing your talent pool
What are the chances that the best lawyers for your firm all live within an easily commutable radius of your head office? To put it bluntly, the chances of coming across a pink sparkly unicorn in the woods near your home are better!
By increasing the reach and considering candidates who may live in regional areas or even another State or country, you are increasing the talent pool your firm can hire. In practical terms, this translates to a workforce can be more diversified, more experienced and a great cultural match for your organisation.
The benefit of the distributed team is that law firms can offer niche areas of practice that would otherwise be out of reach in a traditional bricks and mortar office.
Greater employee retention and engagement
Replacing staff that leave an organisation can cost well into the thousands of dollars. Not only is a new recruiting process required, there are also on boarding and training costs.
Working flexibly or as a location independent lawyer can drastically improve the quality of life for lawyers and increase employee retention for law firms. For example, if housing prices are high, such as in Vancouver (Canada), Sydney (Australia) or New York (United States of America), moving out of the metropolitan area allows more affordable housing for your staff and means they can keep their job and you keep your experienced staff.
There is also the added benefit of greater employee engagement and loyalty. If you trust your employees enough to work from home (or a co-working space close by to their home), they will reward you with loyalty and be more engaged with their work.
More over, there is also a productivity benefit. Based on a 1 hour commute each way each day on a 5 day week, you are giving your employee back 10 hours a week in which they can exercise, spend family time or relax. A happy employee will mean a more engaged employee and, I would argue, a more productive employee.
The return on investment from a happy, engaged and productive employee for an organisation is priceless.
Improving the lives of your lawyers
Our current work patterns in the western world were adopted at the time of the industrial revolution. However, we don’t live a 9am to 5pm workday anymore. Technology has evolved so that we are constantly on call and asked to be available after hours. Working flexibly helps re-adjust the way we work around this change in accessibility. A distributed team is part of the solution to the accessibility conundrum we find ourselves in.
The autonomy provided to a distributed team member to choose when and how to work means that they will likely be available at odd hours, but also be free to take time out during the day for a family event or to run errands. The net effect is the same, the work gets done, but it gets done in a way that your employee has more control over and which is tailored to your client, noting clients also have different hours of availability in modern times and may require a more tailored solution.
More control makes employees happier and less likely to want to look for greener pastures or establish their own firm. The reason I know this is that I have worked remotely for 4 years, choosing in 2013 to move my young family to a seaside town near Byron Bay, Australia. The benefits to my life were so life changing that in May 2018, I published a book, The Tracksuit Economy: How to work productively and effectively from home. In my book I set out the numerous ways in which my life improved working remotely, allowing me to live near the beach in a regional area but work for a firm based in Sydney, Australia. However, the key benefit has been working autonomously and ensuring I control how my day runs (subject to client deadlines). Part of my autonomous daily routine is the conscious decision to keep things local within my community.
I am not alone in my choice to work remotely. Cara Austen, APAC Group General Counsel for Allegis Group (Allegis) relocated from Sydney to Grafton in far northern New South Wales in 2017 whilst retaining her role at Allegis. Other members of Cara’s team are spread across the globe and Cara has undertaken 2 years working in Sydney with a global team and 2 years working in regional Australia with the same team dynamics.
Cara reflected on the outcome of almost 4 years of working as part of a distributed team, “I manage a team of legal professionals based in 4 jurisdictions (India, Mainland China, Hong Kong and Australia) that provide legal and compliance support from Delhi to Wellington. I can effectively manage this team from anywhere, although for my own convenience I'd prefer somewhere where the time zones overlap! As the team has grown we have focused on building relationships amongst the team members. Culturally, this presents some challenges but they are all on board and I love seeing the cross-pollination and teamwork happen despite the physical distances.”
Results based metrics
The autonomy that I outline above is achieved through a Results Only Work Environment (ROWE), a human resource management strategy developed by Jody Thompson and Cali Ressler and set out in their 2008 book, “Why Work Sucks and How to Fix It”. A ROWE arrangement measures results (or output) and not presence in the workplace. Given much legal work can be value based and fixed fee (rather than measured on an hourly rate) there is much scope for legal firms to adopt this way of doing things, especially as organisations become more global in their outlook.
Allegis is an example of a global outlook. As set out above, Cara Austen’s team is global so it does not matter if she is in Sydney, regional Australia or Bangalore – all of the team are never going to be in one place. Therefore it makes sense that Cara be permitted to work in the location of her choice.
Cutting your overheads
As rents and other business costs increase, you can be left running a firm with very high overheads. Colouring outside the lines and employing a wholly or hybrid distributed team (including part time or contracted staff) can allow you to operate from smaller premises (or even a co-working space) yet compete in the crowded legal market.
Take a moment to pause and think what you would do with the extra funds you save each month on high rental or other fixed office costs. The benefit could be substantial.
The future is a distributed team
When looking at the above points, it is clear that a distributed team is worth considering. It might only be one or two trusted team members, depending on your structure, but the experience and loyalty distributed team members can bring to your organisation is immeasurable.
About the Author Emma Heuston is principal lawyer at "The Remote Expert".
A lawyer with over 19 years experience, Emma started her own business in early 2019 practising solely in the remote work niche, helping businesses who hire remote team members or want to hire remote team members. Having been a remote worker herself for over 4 years as a partner equivalent in a law firm just prior to forging her own path, Emma has hands on experience managing a remote team and understands the documentation and systems a business needs to make a distributed team work.
Emma has a proven track record in the remote and distributed work space, having been named a finalist in the 2018 Lawyers Weekly Partner of the Year Awards and winning Thought Leader of the Year at the 2018 Lawyers Weekly Women in Law Awards for her work in the remote work space.
If you would like to read more from Emma, she writes a regular blog available at www.theremoteexpert.com or order her book, "The Tracksuit Economy - how to work productively and effectively from home".