What next after furlough?

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The government’s furlough scheme is set to end on 31st October.

Many of the staff furloughed from UK Top 100 firms are already back at work, if not in their offices. But for others, the end of government support may also mean the end of their roles, as law firms look to cut costs in the face of ongoing economic uncertainty.

Having already deployed shorter working hours, pay freezes or cuts, and furlough, what comes next for law firms struggling with reduced or different types of demand for fee earner support as a result of adjusted working processes?

“As the full impact of the economy hits firms, activity levels are likely to fall and firms will need fewer staff,” says Giles Murphy, head of professional practice at accountant Smith & Williamson.

This month, the FT reported that some firms are already making redundancies. Reed Smith, BCLP,  Watson Farley & Williams and Irwin Mitchell have all announced redundancy consultations, while others like DWF and BLM have permanently closed offices.

A STRATEGIC APPROACH IS IMPERATIVE

For many, working both from home and the office will be their new operating model. This crisis has brought about lasting operational and cultural change.  As a result, now is the time for operational leaders to think strategically about resourcing to meet their future needs.

“During the 2008 recession, some law firms made wholesale redundancies and, a few years later, were left without the right amount of resource in certain practice areas, level of seniority and with specific types of experience,” comments Rachel McCorry, CEO at Intelligent Office.

“Reducing headcount is a short-term approach; those firms which use the opportunity presented by the pandemic to implement the right operational structure will come out of this crisis stronger than before.”

This includes looking at how lawyers are supported to allow them to be as productive as possible in the office or working at home. This might mean a new approach to the personal assistant role, to digitising post and documents, or to optimally managing office space.

Covid-19 has changed the way lawyers and law firms work, with fee earners adapting to remote ways of working. Alison Bilgin, COO at Intelligent Office said, “While some of this thinking was happening before, firms are increasingly open to a much more radical set of options than was the case pre-Covid.”

“With the furlough scheme ending, law firm leaders are asking themselves who they need back in their businesses. As remote working looks set to stay for some staff, and with the office-based working environment significantly changed to accommodate social distancing, how should fee earners be supported?”

Some firms are beginning to encourage their staff back into their buildings, with Allen & Overy, CMS and Freshfields opening offices for those who want to return. This shift, after many months of working from home, will appeal to those eager to return to the hustle and bustle of a dynamic office. For others, it could induce a more cautious response from those worried about braving public transport or a shared environment. This is one of the reasons Intelligent Office has introduced a new Executive Floor Host position to help facilitate law firm employees’ return to the office safely.

ASSESSING THE OPTIONS FOR TRANSFORMATIVE OPERATIONAL CHANGE

The pandemic has shown that things (often previously thought too difficult) can be done when there is an urgent need to do so. Firms should not lose that momentum in the rush to return to normality. The opportunity to institutionalise operational best practice may not come again!

Having coped well with enforced change, leaders can afford to be a bit braver about taking other decisions to transform the way they do things. Some might argue that they can’t afford not to.

Autumn marks the season of financial reporting with PwC, The Lawyer and Legal Business all casting forensic eyes over law firm accounts for the previous financial year. The expectation is that the pandemic will have hit both top and bottom lines, although perhaps not as much as previously feared. The question is increasingly how much of a financial impact will the pandemic make in 2021.

Nobody knows what the next few months will hold. With infection rates rising and local lockdowns in place, there remains a great many uncertainties for businesses. And that’s before Britain leaves the European Union. Questions remain and difficult decisions will no doubt need to be taken.

Some decisions need not be so difficult!

With more than 20 years’ experience of working with law firms, Intelligent Office has supported many firms – large and small – through transformative operational change. Our data and insights help to identify the changes that will benefit our clients, help them to make evidence-led decisions, and then implement outsourced solutions that deliver ongoing benefits.

Read about law firms that have already implemented significant positive changes with Intelligent Office’s support and find out about the launch of Chronos – Intelligent Office’s data analytics tool. For a conversation about market trends or options for operational change and improvement, contact Sam Nicholls, Head of Business Development.