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‘Lawyers are not interchangeable’

Whilst hybrid working is an inevitable part of the post-pandemic working environment, the human-connection element of lawyering is something that is wholly built working in-office.

user iconLauren Croft 09 November 2022 Big Law
‘Lawyers are not interchangeable’
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That’s something Fionn Bowd, chief executive of boutique law firm Bowd, said makes lawyers absolutely unique — to both their clients and each other.

Speaking recently on Legal Lightbulbs, she said that the idea of making the office more appealing than working from home was unlikely to be an easy feat — but that it could benefit organisations in a number of different ways.

“People are more productive at home. I personally have always been more productive at home because you’re not interrupted in the same way as you are in the workplace. And also, you get that commute time, some of which I think what people often say is, they’ll sort of assign some of that commute time to work and some of it back to their personal life. So, work gets some of it, and their personal life gets some of it. But everybody is happy because they’ve got at least an hour back in their day,” she explained.

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“All of those things are beneficial. Maybe have one floor as a space for client meetings and just be done with it altogether. Why don’t you just accept a full-time workforce working from home? Now, I think some of this is fact or research-based, the firm’s position and employer’s position, and some of it is intuitive. I think on the intuitive side or on the kind of personal side, I think some people just want things to go back to the way they were.”

Whilst there are a range of reasons businesses would want to draw staff back into the office, Ms Bowd said that engaging with co-workers and building office relationships are particularly important.

“It’s very difficult to develop the same kind of close relationships that you have in the workplace, particularly with your peers. So, I was talking before about the hierarchical challenges and the sort of social difficulty of trying to work out how to engage in a hierarchical situation. That goes on for years. That’s not like something that you just work out in the first couple of weeks,” she added.

“And as your role in the hierarchy changes, you then have people below you who you need to work out how to engage with. And your position changes, and so does your right to talk to the managing partner if you’re in the lift with them. This kind of stuff is ongoing, but one of the things that really does happen in law firms is your peer relationships. Working together with people who are roughly at the same level with you, doing things together and having shared experiences and learning from each other and talking about problems. That is actually one of the most wonderful, collegiate things that happen in a work environment.”

“For people who desperately love learning and lifetime learning, which is the kind of people lawyers are, that kind of work environment where you are learning from others, teaching others, spending time together, [and] going through often baptisms of fire on large matters and large projects. You know you have these shared experiences which kind of bond you together. And those relationships go on for life,” Ms Bowd continued.

Without those close working relationships, staff are more likely to leave an organisation, as they aren’t connected to their workplace or co-workers. And despite lawyers not collaborating as much as other professions, they do compare notes and experiences.

“That’s kind of the closest we sort of get to collaboration. You need to have relationships with people to be able to do that. And if you want to be a firm that is impressing your clients with kind of market-leading ideas and doing things and constantly kind of moving forwards, then you’re much more able to do that if your team is talking to each other than if they’re all working in a little bunker where they don’t really deal with each other than in a sort of transactional way,” Ms Bowd noted.

“I think employers get that that stuff matters. And I think the retention side of things is there, but unfortunately, I think they get very mixed up by the people who just want things to go back to how they were. And they’re not good at really understanding why they want people in the office. And if they do understand it, they’re not good at communicating it.”

Moving forward, however, firms should place less priority on getting staff back into the office and more on finding a sense of normalcy and balance.

“I don’t think the genie is going back into the bottle. And I think the next part of this is trying to work out what we think the sort of future of work looks like. And it is a bigger issue. It’s not sort of only facing law firms, but it is particularly important in firms because we rely on the intellectual powerhouse of each individual person,” Ms Bowd concluded.  

“A law firm is nothing but its fee earners. It produces nothing that doesn’t come out of the minds of its lawyers as opposed to companies that make widgets or build things or dig things out of the ground. All we are is what is in our people’s sort of heads and what they produce for us and that kind of thing. So, the people aspect of law firms is absolutely critical, and lawyers are not interchangeable.”

The transcript of this podcast episode was slightly edited for publishing purposes. To listen to the full conversation with Fionn Bowd, click below:

Lauren Croft

Lauren Croft

Lauren is a journalist at Lawyers Weekly and graduated with a Bachelor of Journalism from Macleay College. Prior to joining Lawyers Weekly, she worked as a trade journalist for media and travel industry publications and Travel Weekly. Originally born in England, Lauren enjoys trying new bars and restaurants, attending music festivals and travelling. She is also a keen snowboarder and pre-pandemic, spent a season living in a French ski resort.

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