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Law firms have shown resiliency and ingenuity in the age of COVID-19. Lawyers, courts, and in-house counsel, forced to adapt to new technology and business operations, have been admirably agile. But now school is back. In many places in the country, students are distance learning yet again. As is well-documented, distance learning has significant drawbacks. It may, however, be the status quo for the next year (or longer).
Schools that are back in the classroom may be forced to go to distance learning again if a COVID-19 outbreak occurs, particularly considering the upcoming cold and flu season. It is a distinct possibility that we will find ourselves in a similar situation to the one we experienced at the beginning of the pandemic. We can, fortunately, learn from our experiences last Spring.
So, how should we accommodate workers and clients who are faced with the impossible task of being a model employee, parent, and assistant teacher at once? There is no movement afoot to create a 72-hour day.
The answer is to eliminate or significantly reduce core hours. While many employers allow flexible schedules, many who have done so stick to some "core hours" in which all employees are expected to work. It's a reasonable position to take: Firm leaders need to be able to reach associates. Still, some circumstances require extraordinary responses. This is one of them.
At the start of 2020, having a remote workforce would have been unthinkable for many law firms. Yet, despite most lawyers wanting to go back to the office, lawyers report that they can communicate well, remain productive, and serve clients while working remotely, despite challenges.
That adaptability is needed again. Like remote work, flexible scheduling has been around for some time. The issue is scaling up and having the courage to enter unknown territory. Eliminating core hours can work if given the time, effort, and chance to succeed. One large law firm, Squire Patton Boggs, is already taking this step and eliminating core hours at its UK offices, according to Westlaw Today.
Work-life conflicts such as those experienced by parents during the pandemic can decrease wellness, including depression, anxiety, and burnout. Flexible work hours allows lawyers and staff to remain healthy and avoid burnout and other issues.
It is not just associates and staff who benefit, however. Flexible hours can benefit clients, as well, by having associates and staff more readily available outside of traditional firm hours.
The biggest obstacle to a truly flexible workday is worry over billable hours. But this fear may be unfounded. Studies have shown that productivity increases with flexible schedules. Allowing parents time in the morning to help their children can make them more productive during the afternoon and evening.
Working remotely and on irregular hours was not unheard of pre-pandemic. The dramatic shift came by necessity. We may see a similar scale-up regarding irregular hours in the coming months.
Most Lawyers Do Not Want to Work From Home Full-Time (FindLaw's Strategist)
Four Bold Requests for Attorney Licensing Requirements in the Wake of COVID-19 (FindLaw's Greedy Associates)