Contemporary Work Practices in The Nigerian Legal Profession in The Post Covid-19 Era – Demilade Odutola

Corporate Finance and Capital Markets

20th November 2020

Demilade Odutola[1]

 

Contemporary Work Practices in The Nigerian Legal Profession in The Post Covid-19 Era

 

Introduction

As a result of outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, many countries have implemented measures restricting movement and congregation to combat the spread of the virus. In compliance with preventative measures prescribed by the government, non-essential operations in most establishments have been shut down indefinitely or reduced to the performance of basic operations. To this end, most organisations, including law firms, have resorted to working remotely, to ensure continuity of operations.

Working remotely is a deviation from the regular, nine-to-five, office-bound model familiar to traditional organisations. The advent of the pandemic and the disruptions it has caused have made employers and employees more aware of the efficiencies of working remotely. Many organisations are now compelled to reevaluate their stance on remote work.

To observe social distancing and other preventive safeguards, meetings are held virtually, webinars are held in place of seminars and interactions with clients are now frequently conducted via digital channels and platforms. Although telecommuting is far from the norm in Nigeria, companies, firms and startups in the metropolis are beginning to embrace the remote work culture. Given the global shift to the remote work model, the time has come for the Nigerian legal industry to edge towards remote work options as an intrinsic part of legal practice.

  1. Benefits of Working Remotely for Employers and Employees

There are numerous advantages to the reduced physical presence at the workplace for both employers and their employees.

Absenteeism and tardiness are commonplace in the Nigerian work environment, particularly in the mega cities due to endemic traffic congestion. Commuters in Lagos spend an average of 25-30 hours[2] in vehicular traffic weekly. Thankfully, workers in this technologically advanced era can be spared the stress of commuting to a brick-and-mortar location whenever this can be avoided. Less time spent commuting translates to less untimeliness and improved productivity.

Time optimization is a significant advantage of working remotely. Having eliminated the stress of shuttling back and forth, employees are able to perform optimally which improves productivity. Hence, time spent navigating through traffic could be better spent putting in billable hours from the comfort of their homes. In addition to saving time, employees can save a large portion of their wages spent on transportation to and from their places of work.

Furthermore, telecommuting supports effective time management and prioritization of tasks as employees are held accountable for their daily outputs and are thus motivated to deliver tangible and timely results.

Telecommuting also helps to avoid the stress and tension usually associated with the workplace. This is because workers feel more at ease within their comfort zones or safe spaces. In this sense, telecommuting helps to improve the mental and physical wellbeing of employees, creates a healthier work-life balance, and increases overall job satisfaction.[3]

Working remotely is equally beneficial to employers. Employers of labour can significantly reduce recurrent operational costs and the strain on their facilities and resources. Some of these operational costs that organisations can minimize are bills related to telephone, electricity, stationery, and internet access. Obviously, every expense cut is an addition to the organisation’s profits.

Considering that the younger generation has a strong desire for improved work-life balance, flexibility ranks high on factors millennials consider in appraising a prospective employer. It only stands to reason that organisations that prioritise remote work will better attract and retain this demographic. Older employees (in the 45-60 age bracket) are equally enthusiastic about the flexibility that telecommuting can offer. The older an employee gets, the greater the chance they will opt to skip physically going to the office in favour of working from home.

Likewise, working from home is a great way to leverage new technologies because technology is the key enabler of mobility. Using various project management applications, cloud storage, smart devices, high-speed internet access, video, chat and conferencing platforms, colleagues can engage and collaborate remotely on deliverables.

  1. Some Challenges to Remote Work

A major drawback for the remote workforce is the logistics involved in working remotely. Poor power supply and unreliable internet access are typical problems in the Nigerian work environment. Employees who work from home often must source their own electricity to power their work devices.  Others complain that their level of productivity is impaired when they work from home because they must contend with the peculiarities of home life and distractions from their immediate environments. Some others are inhibited by the lack of office equipment and supplies, which are readily available at their workplace.

  1. Working Remotely in Nigerian Law Firms

Like other industries, the Nigerian legal industry is gradually adopting the “work from home” trend. While numerous associates and partners are already allowed to work remotely, it is mostly an implicit arrangement. Having a comprehensive remote working policy which is consistently implemented will enable firms reap full benefits from this arrangement.

Every law firm has the potential to accommodate remote working with the right technology-enabled tools, workforce, and adjusted policy framework. For firms considering assimilating telecommuting into their internal operations, there are few things to consider before taking the leap.

  1. Factors That Facilitate Remote Work

To successfully accommodate a remote workforce, there is need to strengthen communication channels to avoid a breakdown of communication. This goes far beyond electronic correspondence. Virtual platforms like Slack, Zoom, Skype and Google Meets host features that enable video conferencing, virtual meetings and presentations, instant messaging, and screen sharing. It is important to ensure that these communication corridors are secure so that sensitive and confidential information does not fall into the wrong hands. Regardless of the size of a law firm, cybersecurity vulnerability can hold dire consequences for the firm’s business and reputation.

For lawyers, whose mainstays are their case files and law reports, a major concern is not having these requisite resources easily accessible when they work from home. The use of a Virtual Private Network (“VPN”) allows easy and secure access to work documents and centralized database and work files from remote locations, obviating the need to visit the office. VPNs also provide security and privacy of online activities for remote employees, through encrypted internet access. Law firms are advised to equip counsel with automated legal research tools such as Law Pavilion and LegalPedia. In addition, firms should invest in procuring high speed internet access with adequate bandwidth to accommodate the demands of virtual work.

Every law firm should have an IT desk/department to utilise digital technologies efficiently. Internal IT personnel are just as important as lawyers because they provide needed technical support; without which workflow could come to a standstill. The role of an IT desk/department also extends to data management, cybersecurity monitoring, management of internet access, and the maintenance of hardware and software. In addition, having a dedicated IT department will help to address cybersecurity risks associated with remote work, and ease transition to full or partial remote work. Due to technological intervention in the practice of the law, lawyers and legal personnel would need to upscale their digital skills.

Although this digitally driven work arrangements may come with additional costs to be borne by the law firm, the benefits outweigh the cost in the long run.

  1. Conclusion

Remote work is unlikely to take the place of physical presence in the workplace. Employees are still needed on-site to interact with clients, foster employee cohesion and camaraderie and for administrative purposes. However, employees should be allowed the option to work from home at least once or twice a week or as often as the firm’s policy allows.[4]

Even if a firm does not plan to fully implement virtual work, forward-thinking firms should equip staff with the right tools, in the event of an immediate need to work remotely, as we have seen in recent times. Considering that remote work has become a standard component of the labour sphere, law firms should introduce or formalise work policies that focus on employee productivity in and out of the office. Law firms are advised to adopt the hybrid-work model so that employees could work from home and in the office in varying proportions. Employers should carry out targeted surveys to find out how best to improve working conditions for employees within and outside the workplace. The solutions proffered in this paper should be adapted to the needs of each employee, to achieve a seamless remote work experience.

For the employer, employee productivity is one of the main concerns with offering the work-from-home alternative. Practice management software should be engaged to aid effective supervision of employees who are working from their homes to relieve concerns relating to employee productivity out of the office. Practice management tools like NextCounsel, Lawcus, Perfect Practice, ActionStep, CosmoLex can assist in monitoring the activity of employees, managing tasks, and tracking billable hours.

Taking into cognizance that the public sector employs a large percentage of the Nigerian workforce, legal practitioners in the public sector should not be left out. The authorities should set an example by formulating uniform policies to foster a balanced and effective remote working culture in the public sector. If such policies are successfully implemented, the private sector can then follow suit.

The Nigerian Bar Association, which is the umbrella body of all Nigerian lawyers, should incorporate digital upskilling courses into its Mandatory Continuing Legal Education program to build a digitally driven, IT compliant legal industry. This would ensure that legal practitioners are prepared to manage the exigencies of remote work.

In the post-pandemic world of work, working remotely is no longer an option; it is a necessity. Inevitably, law firms must confront evolving modalities of work and move with the times. Recent events have shown that legal work can be effectively and efficiently done remotely. Thus, attorneys can be gainfully employed and just as productive away from the office as they are in the office. To align with the new normal, organisations in the Nigerian legal industry must trade their current working arrangements for more flexible arrangements that are sustainable in the new world of work.

 

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For further information on this article and area of law, please contact

Demilade Odutola at: S. P. A. Ajibade & Co., Lagos by

telephone (+234 1 472 9890), fax (+234 1 4605092)

mobile (+234.0902 590 0719 or email oodutola@spaajibade.com

www.spaajibade.com

 

 

 

1     Oluwademilade Odutola, Associate Intern, Corporate Finance and Capital Markets Department, SPA Ajibade & Co., Lagos, Nigeria.

[2]     Business Day, Lagos commuters lose 75% of weekly working hours to traffic (Dec 11, 2018)

https://businessday.ng/uncategorized/article/lagos-commuters-lose-75-of-weekly-working-hours-to-traffic/ accessed on 5th August 2020.

[3]     However, evidence indicates that remote employees usually work beyond regular office hours. Inevitably, work pressure spills over into the secular lives of remote employees’, which impacts negatively on their work-life balance. See Bridget Miller, Work/Life Balance for Remote Employees (May 28, 2020) https://hrdailyadvisor.blr.com/2020/05/28/work-life-balance-for-remote-employees/ accessed on 1st October, 2020.

[4]       The Hybrid-work Model allows employees to work certain days in the office and others remotely.

 

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