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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 Wet ink signatures have been replaced by electronic signing platforms such as DocuSign while physical meetings have shifted to Zoom and Microsoft Teams.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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