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Could junior lawyers be the next digital nomads?

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City trainee Inshaal Ahmad weighs up the pros and cons of adopting a nomadic lifestyle in the post-vaccine world

The year 2020 was a year of colossal change in the way we live, the way we play and crucially the way we work.

In January 2020, few law firms could have imagined operating completely remotely — yet that’s exactly what’s been achieved. Wet ink signatures have been replaced by electronic signing platforms such as DocuSign while physical meetings have shifted to Zoom and Microsoft Teams. With savings in time, money and hassle; it looks like the shift from the physical to the digital is here to stay.

For one group of people, working remotely is nothing new. Thanks to the communication technologies of the 21st century, a new generation of flip-flop-wearing, cocktail-sipping digital nomads has emerged. From the beaches of Bali to the cafés of Colombia, digital nomads are able to make a living while travelling the world. All they need is good Wi-Fi.

The past year has demonstrated that commercial lawyers can work from home effectively, so what’s stopping them from becoming digital nomads in a post-vaccine world?

The digital nomad lifestyle could particularly suit young qualified lawyers. With a training contract and perhaps post-qualification experience under their belts, young qualified lawyers are unlikely to require as much hand-holding as trainees. At the same time, young qualified lawyers are unlikely to have as many family commitments as their senior colleagues.

Being a digital nomad is a particularly appealing prospect for young lawyers for both developmental and financial reasons. Firstly, travelling the world can allow you to learn a foreign language, cultivate cultural awareness and become adaptable. All of which are useful skills for an international law firm. Crucially, being a digital nomad means young lawyers can progress their legal careers, without having to miss out on travelling.

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Financially, there are many benefits of being a digital nomad. Young lawyers in London are all too aware of how expensive it is to rent in the capital. According to a Deutsche Bank report, London is the sixth most expensive city to rent in the world. So, by relocating to cheaper cities in Europe and beyond, digital nomads can make substantial savings on rent and other living costs. Similarly, if digital nomads continue to get paid in their home currency, this could translate to increased purchasing power in their host country.

Aside from providing benefits for young lawyers, digital nomadism provides plenty of benefits for law firms too. Firstly, law firms can save office space as digital nomads don’t need permanent desks. Secondly, firms may benefit from increased motivation from digital nomad employees due to the increased autonomy, flexibility and job satisfaction digital nomads are likely to enjoy. Thirdly, by embracing digital nomadism, firms can attract a wider talent pool, as recruitment ceases to be constricted by borders. Early adopters of digital nomadism may also be able to attract talent from other firms. Moreover, the increased flexibility granted to digital nomads may mean that they are open to slightly reduced salaries compared to their office-based counterparts, which would further reduce costs for firms.

Admittedly, before law firms can begin to even contemplate the idea of digital nomadism, there are several hurdles that will first need to be overcome by both firms and lawyers. One major consideration for law firms will be time zones. A London law firm can hardly expect an Australia-based lawyer to log on at 6pm Australian time and finish at 2am the next day. Law firms will therefore need to implement a time zone limit on their digital nomad lawyers to ensure that clients are served properly and employees work sensible hours.

Another major hurdle is tax. If you work for a London law firm but live in Lisbon, where will you pay income tax? Usually tax and social security is paid in the country you work but if you’re not living in that country, the situation becomes more complicated. Migration is another concern; how long can you stay in one country? Different countries impose differing restrictions on how long you can stay. However, progress is being made in this area. In August 2020, Estonia introduced a digital nomad worker visa, allowing digital nomads to work in Estonia for up to a year. Similar moves from other countries would provide the necessary infrastructure for a shift towards digital nomadism.

Despite the hurdles to overcome, it’s clear that digital nomadism offers significant benefits for both lawyers and law firms. Over the past year, we have already witnessed colossal change in the way we work. So, is commercial law ready to move to digital nomadism?

Inshaal Ahmad is a trainee solicitor at CMS. He graduated from the University of Nottingham with a BA in Management with German, and completed an MA at UCL.

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29 Comments

Bitter Lev Fin Associate

Though it would be nice to work abroad, my guess is that firms will not allow it solely on the grounds that it would cause more admin for them. Though you can work for half a year-1 days in a foreign country without having to pay income tax in that country, many firms are still firmly against letting people work abroad without permission for risk of any unplanned tax complications (I.e not secondments where it is carefully planned how many days you’re out there).

As with all bad things in law, these policies are driven by lazy people in HR who want to leave the office at 5 on the dot and avoid any more work.

Mandible

My experience exactly. I asked my firm if I could work abroad and the answer was a categoric no, because of “the risk”. When I told them what the law was and asked what “the risk” was, it was clear that the risk only existed in their minds because they didn’t want to expend any mental energy on thinking about it.

Firms that put some investment into offering this to employees will do well.

Old Guy

Why should they have to think about it? You got a job in the London office of firm, so why should they have to factor you in to policy considerations because you want to work for 3 months in (where exactly could you do this and not disrupt your communication with teammates and clients? South of France? Italy?). Why should the firm even have to think about it? You really think a City firm is missing out on top talent when pitching a £130k salary to the market for 30 year olds because they don’t allow employees to work remotely from a beach? And what benefit do you hope to get by working for 16 hours a day somewhere hot rather than in the office or in a home office from Kent/Hertfordshire like the rest of us? Are you hoping to earn a City salary and then live like a king in Morocco where the Casablanca office of your firm pays partners £50k?

anon

I don’t think it’s lazy for HR to want to leave at 5pm. That’s the norm, and they aren’t paid enough to be expected to slog their life a way.

Don’t be such a dick to people who don’t work the hours you do, especially when they’re paid far less than you are. Applies even to HR, who you’ll inevitably dislike anyway.

Anonymous

Oh god please stop it!

My Instagram is already filled with enough cringey “law influencers”. People who’ve barely even started their training contract giving out advice to people as though they run The City.

The last thing anybody wants is a truckload of them yapping about their “law life ⭐✨” from Dubai.

Absolute clowns.

Touker

The worst ones are the ones who haven’t even started their TC yet – the ones who have “Future Trainee Solicitor / Law Guru” on their LinkedIn profile. Every time their nauseating posts make it onto my LinkedIn feed, the level of cringeworthiness is too much

Idiot

Delete your instagram then

helpful idiot

while i agree with the sentiment, there’s nothing wrong in calling these people out in the first place. the two are not mutually exclusive!

arrys Law Life

Is that you son??

Ray

Good article.

On the tax point, surely firms will be reluctant to pay lawyers gross on the basis that they won’t be UK resident? If they should have done PAYE/NIC then the law firm could be liable for it.

I can see if working for contractors in that respect, but employees I’m not sure.

LOL

LOL at being a ‘digital nomad’ with a criminal pupillage and 5 days a week at the Magistrates Court.

Anon

Still a decade from now you might be making £40k a year.

Yep

And have a life

Anonymous

A life renting in Zone 6 (which exists apparently).

Erbert Smiff

Should have studied harder at law school then.

Troof Hertz

Erbert Smiff, LL.B.

Aspiration 2021 – City

Reality 2025 – PI paralegal.

Anonymous

Troof, the Legal Cheek equivalent of the Daily Mail caveman whose idea of a witty reply is “bet you still live with your mum”. Bless. The cavemen think they are funny too.

Wild Man

Freedom from:

-Forced social interactions
-BS water cooler chatter
-BS office politics
-Neurotic micro managers
-The office prison

Digital nomadism is a dream come true. Imagine it, being able to work entirely outdoors on a breezy summers day rather than having to endure the above while being cooped up in a building. Remote working is probably one of the few good things attributable to lockdown. Lockdown has proved the efficacy of remote working.
Companies no longer have an excuse to keep workers anchored to the office sweatshop. Remote working will most likely stimulate much needed competition within the legal sector, as more lawyers embrace solo practice and the prospect of having hardly any overhead and greater tax efficiencies.

Digital Sedentary

agreed, they also seem particularly prolific in creating “carefully curated content”… I can sort of see this working if you were within a couple of timezones of your home-base, but for more junior lawyers the idea you could work in Oz or the Far East for a UK-based law firm seems a bit far fetched, Why would a supervisor want to go through a document you’ve drafted at 11pm just to suit you? Alternatively you have to live a GMT-based work life which kinda sucks.

helpful idiot

tbh there are plenty of places in GMT (or GMT+1/+2) that are more pleasant than living in the UK. south of france, italy, portugal… the real question is whether anyone would go to the bother of flying out to these places and effectively maintaining two houses/flats. the cost of moving back and forth needs to be factored in, as are the costs of property, tax, etc.

can we stop with the dichotomies

The most I can see happening is juniors being allowed to WFH for a week or two in a go. They can then use that week or two to live in the south of France or wherever their rich daddies/SOs have bought or rented them a place. I don’t think anyone is seriously considering working in a very different timezone. So no working from home from Australia/HK/India etc.

Also, a lot of people will just use this kind of ‘nomadism’ to work from their home countries (if they’re from outside of the UK but from a country that shares a similar timezone) or work from their parents’ houses in the UK and save on rent. That’s fine, too.

Bof

It could be great. I’d love to be paid a London salary and relocate to SE Asia where my family are and have a lower cost of living.

but there are some limits: career progression, supervision, knowledge/development from seniors, salary (!)

More practical: local bar/license rules prohibiting foreign lawyers (perhaps ok practicing non domestic law is ok), tax, accidentally triggering local employment obligations for your employer. If countries could amend their regs to accommodate remote working though, that’d be great but there’s a lot of catching up to do.

Ew.

“If countries could amend their regs to accommodate remote working though, that’d be great but there’s a lot of catching up to do.”

You couldn’t sound any more like an irritating millenial if you tried. The entitlement.

Anon

Ew, says more about you, darling. Lots of countries are amending their regs just for these reasons. It is a practical timing point not one of entitlement. Still, send an email to your grandkids with an emoji in it and tell yourself your cool, bro.

i used my first emoji today

“yasss can you please update your employment regs xd i just wanna go on holds 4 lyfe xx”

As if these countries, many of them poor, corrupt and facing other urgent issues (not least pandemic-related), care about a handful of entitled yuppies who want to work on the beach for a few months while bringing no taxable employment income with them (thanks OECD DTT!).

“Many countries are changing” – which ones? Germany and Estonia? Oh god I’d love to spend my summers in the rain!

Anonymous

Much of the Caribbean has adopted exactly that sort of programme in recent years. Brings in income.

Old Guy

It isn’t for the firms to make it comfortable for a trainee or associate to work from the south of France for a week every month during the summer. Working from home means just that, and it also means that you remain available to go into the office or anywhere else at short notice. Anyone who fancies working from Naples for a week should probably just sneak off and the less said to the rest of the team the better.

AB

Aww, this is cute. Imagine still having the optimism to believe a) that junior lawyers actually know enough to do much of anything straight out of training and b) that firms actually care about the welfare of their juniors.

This is something I didn’t quite realise getting into law because I was young and stupid but it is one of the most difficult careers to travel with. If you want a career that involves living elsewhere, you’re in the wrong game. Law is really tightly linked to staying in your jurisdiction. Sure some lucky people get to go abroad, but they are a tiny minority. Also all this stuff about cultural competency and to an extent even foreign languages – no one cares. Not once in my entire career have I needed to use any of my languages. We pay expert translators for that stuff.

MC hodl

I worked from south of France during the whole last summer and plan to do the same this year. Working at MC firm, 3pqe the team was aware and did not complaint about it. WF

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