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CAM expects +80% take-up of new flexi work policies post Apr ‘21 office re-openings • Chennai, Hyd to close offices [UPDATE-2]

Covid workflow may become post-Covid normal at CAM
Covid workflow may become post-Covid normal at CAM

Cyril Amarchand Mangaldas (CAM) has postponed the opening of its physical offices until 31 March 2021 “pending the resolution of the health crisis”, from when it will introduce a policy that will allow staff to work from home (WFH) and more flexibly, according to a press release from the firm earlier today.

We understand that the move follows several internal surveys of staff and law students at 16 law schools, which suggested that around 80% would like to take advantage of the option of working from home. And we had reported earlier this month that the firm had been working on such a policy, after having announced that offices would re-open on 19 October.

From 1 April 2021, this will allow several models of working flexibly for CAM fee-earners and staff, in addition to the firm planning to transition fully to being a digital and paperless office (the now age-old buzzword that the legal industry has never quite managed to implement).

Managing partner Cyril Shroff commented in a press release: “We have adopted dynamic working models that are aligned with the future of work, built on a world class digital infrastructure and aimed towards enhancing productivity and our talent experience.

“We are ready to bring in the transformative change to lead the legal industry.”

However, the devil will very much lie in the details. Traditionally a main impediment in lawyers working flexibly has been that take up may be limited unless it comes right from the top and with assurances that your career won’t suffer if you are not seated in the office all hours of the day.

Then again, some of that prejudice against WFH may have evaporated with Covid-19, in perhaps one of the few good things to come out of the pandemic.

We have reached out to Shroff for further comment and will update the article if we get more information.

Update-1, 17:20: We have updated the article with several more detailed explanations from Shroff below.

Shroff said: “I think this is the future of work which is going to happen anyway, but has now arrived and is better to embrace.” He summarised the five options as:

1. Work from office. My guess is 15-20% will continue with that option, especially the litigators

2. Hybrid. 60-70% will choose this. One day minimum you have to work from the office, and one day compulsory must work from home.

3. Short term work from anywhere option - either for childcare or elder care - once in five years, for 6 months. You don’t have to report to office once a week. It’s not taken as leave.

4. A more long term work from anywhere option. Do I want to work from my home town forever? We think there are some very very bright people who want to be associated with CAM and will choose this option. A combination of our alumni will love this, and also some of our existing people will migrate.

5. Flexi lawyer - gig-like, for three to six months, they will service us. And eventually if it builds up scale, some [of this service may be made available] to clients. This meets the ups and downs [and] demand].

In our view this kind of covers the potential universe of all options.

Flexible working

One option that will theoretically be available to staff will be flexible working, where some staff and fee-earners can opt to WFH between one and four days per week, being in the office the remaining days in the week.

Staff who would like to take advantage of the option can apply with their preferences, which would be evaluated by each team and management.

Those who take advantage of the option would not have a permanent desk in an office anymore but would be hot-desking, which means being potentially allocated a new workspace whenever they are in the office.

Some business services functions, for instance, might have to be in the office, and some fee-earners in areas such as litigation may also have to be in the office more than others.

“It’s not a birthright,” said Shroff about whether all lawyers could opt for more flexible arrangements, since entirely new contracts would be drawn up for those who take up the option.

However, he said that the policy stated that there would be no differentiation between fee-earners who opted to work from home or from the office. “Reward and compensation, all these [things] are equal”, he noted. “Everything is the same, no change. We are just accepting it [flexi working] as the model.”

But work demands would still be the final decider. “It’s a client first approach, if a client wants you [in the office].

“But subject to that, we will accommodate as much as possible because it is part of firm's stated policy. We want people to work from home.”

Work from anywhere as a more long-term options

This will be an option for more senior specialist staff and fee-earners, who may be able to opt for longer term arrangements to work from home indefinitely.

They might even be working outside the country or in a city different from their home office.

On an ad hoc basis it is not entirely new for firms to have had lawyers operating remotely without an office on location - Khaitan & Co’s Paku Khan had moved to the US in 2016 to build its competition practice from there.

CAM’s plan would put such arrangements on a formal footing though again, much like with flexible working, it will be subject to approval from management and it will depend on how many actually end up taking it up.

There are “lots of brilliant brilliant people” available, for whom Shroff predicted this would be an attractive option. “It opens up a whole new talent market for me and creates more competition,” he said.

One-off remote working possibilities + short term gig-like flexi-lawyering

Once every five years, staff will also have the option to work remotely from anywhere for a period of up to six months, to attend to personal needs.

The firm would also take on fee-earner resources more flexibly for short-term assignments based on specific needs.

Office space less necessary

From 1 January 2021, CAM would also close its physical offices in Hyderabad and Chennai, with WFH becoming the default.

There are around 10 lawyers in both those offices. Shroff said that those offices would be “notionally on the books of the Bangalore office, but otherwise business as usual”.

Those who have to have meetings in a physical space, would be using business centres.

Shroff said that this would not only save costs but also gives more flexibility. “If this model can work, it would [work] for other places as well.” International firms such as Dentons had started similar policies for two of its offices, he added.

The firm’s Mumbai office - which is owned by the firm’s promoter family - would retain its current space to allow for future growth although there are plans to redesign the space for more meeting rooms and to allow for hot-desking.

Survey headlines of 650 staff: 55% more productive at home

Shroff explained that CAM had carried out four surveys on this, with the most important one having happened in September, in which around 650 anonymous responses were tallied making up around 90% of the workforce.

According to him, 80% said they wanted the flexibility of working from home as a long term policy, while the others were indifferent.

Out of respondents, 55% had said that their “productivity was higher” while WFH over the last seven months during the pandemic.

The third takeaway of the survey was about the issues with WFH experienced, which mostly concerned well-known problems such as separating work time from personal time at home, and how collaborating with teams could be more difficult from home.

Tech upgrades

The technology had been adequate for WFH for most respondents to the survey, said Shroff, though the firm would be working hard on upgrading its infrastructure further in the coming months.

Primary amongst those would be further upgrading of security protocols to enable remote working, including allowing fee-earners to use their own electronic devices rather than just firm issued machines.

Second, the firm had started a working group of six partners, as well as the heads of business functions like IT, HR and administration, to evaluate 30 to 40 applications to enhance collaboration, including whiteboarding and other software.

The roll out as a whole was also a huge managerial exercise. “We are starting small group consultations from next week,” said Shroff. “It is about four to five months of solid work that goes behind it.”

Expands on previous attempts at flexi working

In its press release, CAM had said: “We believe we are the first law firm to announce this and expect that this will set the benchmark.”

That said, it is not entirely new although it goes further than others have before.

The CAM policy expands on the footsteps of Khaitan & Co, which had in 2018 announced out flexible working as an option to court millennials, including “agile working” of up to 12 days per year and sabbatical leave of three months after five years of working with the firm.

We have reached out to Khaitan (which had in July of this year announced WFH to be the default until the end of 2020) for information on how many staffers have taken up these offers, before the pandemic.

We will update this article when we hear from them.

Update-2, 26 October: Khaitan HR director Amar Sinhji said: “In the last financial year i.e pre pandemic (upto March 2020), ~35% of our members opted to use our agile working and time-off policies, including WFH, recuperation and sabbatical leave.”

Shroff, for one, said that he hoped the approach to flexible working would catch on more widely.

“I would encourage everybody to do it,” Shroff said. “If the whole industry moves, it’ll be better for all of us.”

Photo by Shane Adams.

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