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The ‘new normal’ — a City lawyer’s perspective

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Ahead of ‘Global law firms and the New Normal’ tomorrow, Hogan Lovells’ Chris Hutton reveals what he’s missed about working in the City and why COVID-19 puts lawyers in a unique position

Hogan Lovells partner Chris Hutton

The so-called ‘new normal’ isn’t so new to Hogan Lovells partner Chris Hutton. After all, working from home has been the legal profession’s shared reality for over six months following the outbreak of COVID-19.

“Given how quickly everyone adapted, it’s not new anymore. We know how to deal with this, we know how to navigate the challenges,” says Hutton, who specialises in antitrust and competition law. “What was new in March, is now just normal.”

Offering its lawyers a head start in making the switch to home-working was the firm’s pre-existing agile working polices and video conferencing systems. A long time in the making, Hutton explains that these tools already enabled cross-border communication between colleagues and clients across 48 offices in almost 30 countries, albeit not in the same speed or scale demanded by the pandemic. Having these systems in place allows an international law firm to show it can work “holistically and in a very collegiate way” — an important selling point for clients, Hutton explains.

Newer to Hutton is returning to a pre-pandemic way of working. Following a successful pilot, Hogan Lovells was running a back-to-work scheme that allowed employees to return to its London office on a rotating basis if they wanted or needed to work away from home. However, given this week’s government announcement the firm will be reverting back to colleagues working from home for the time being.

Much had changed about the office. In place were a range of COVID-19 safety measures, including one-way systems, restrictions on the number of people using lifts simultaneously, social distancing in meeting rooms and plenty of hand sanitiser and hand wipes dispensers around the building. “As you’d expect, it’s extremely well done — you feel very secure,” says Hutton, who worked from the office every other week under the scheme.

While the past six months have shown Hutton that “you don’t need a building to a be a good law firm”, there are things which he has missed about working in the City. Natural, unplanned communication immediately comes to mind. As much as video calls have proven a worthy substitute for in-person meetings, they can lack the spontaneity of day-to-day interactions. “You can’t easily replicate just popping your head around the door, asking how someone is, going for a coffee or bumping into someone in the office,” says Hutton, who studied law at Cambridge.

Also making Hutton’s miss-list was a decent printer that could “print at a reasonable speed” and doesn’t use a whole ink cartridge on lengthy legal documents — which he explains is another way of saying that he missed the infrastructure of a law firm. While bedrooms, home offices and kitchen tables offer flexibility, as workspaces they require “more effort” compared to offices which are designed for lawyers to work as efficiently as possible. As such, Hutton believes there will be “increased admiration” among lawyers for the support they receive. “Our business services teams are fantastic, but when they’re suddenly not available in the same way as before, you really do notice it,” he says.

Then there’s the actual office atmosphere. “I miss the buzz around the office,” says Hutton. He reminisces about hanging out with colleagues in the firm’s staff restaurant, which boasts enviable views of the City’s skyline, and the moments he took to enjoy the firm’s balcony beehive in-between meetings.

The application deadline for Hogan Lovells' Winter Vacation Scheme is Saturday 31 October 2020

Fond throwbacks aside, the Hogan Lovells partner recognises the novel challenges of partially re-opening offices. Although many with child-care responsibilities or those who live alone may welcome the change, “not everyone will feel comfortable or confident about returning,” says Hutton, who returned to the London office in hope of giving people an “honest assessment” of how things are.

He also found communicating with remote-working colleagues from the office initially quite disruptive. “It felt weird to be on a team call with me sat at the office and everyone else at their home desks and kitchen tables,” he says. That said, after a few days, this strange scenario quickly became normal to Hutton — suggesting that an efficient hybrid approach, combining remote and office-based working, is possible.

Continuing to identify what does and doesn’t work well about agile working is important as Hogan Lovells devises its post-pandemic strategy, which Hutton believes will inevitably offer lawyers greater flexibility in choosing how they work. Such experience also allows Hogan Lovells’ lawyers to better serve clients who are also returning to their offices. Having operations in jurisdictions, such as China and Hong Kong, that went into lockdown and reopened much earlier than most, for example, means that practical and logistical guidance can be shared across the firm’s global network and then imparted onto clients.

According to Hutton, this puts lawyers in a unique position. “Typically, if a client is facing something very difficult, whether it’s a large litigation or a huge commercial issue, we’re advising them but we’re not in exactly the same position in terms of the challenges we face,” says Hutton. “In this scenario, we have been exactly in the same position as them. We’ve had to deal with our workforce being unable to go into the office and everyone having to work remotely, and now the challenges of making a work environment COVID-secure,” he adds. By sharing “the same interests”, legal advisors can build even closer relationships with their clients as the crisis continues.

Hutton — whose new lockdown skills include being much better at reading and marking-up documents online — says aspiring lawyers should remember that whatever version of ‘normal’ they encounter, one legal skill will stand the test of time: adaptability. “One of the things that the lockdown and the immediacy of it shows you is how quickly people can adapt to new ways of working,” says Hutton.

Chris Hutton will be speaking alongside other lawyers from Hogan Lovells at ‘Global law firms and the New Normal’, a virtual student event taking place tomorrow, on Thursday 24 September. You can apply to attend the event, which is free, now.

The application deadline for Hogan Lovells' Winter Vacation Scheme is Saturday 31 October 2020

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