This article contains insights from a research report conducted in 2020. You can download a complimentary copy of the research report here.
A Foreword from Adrian
This year has changed our lives in many ways. As the Covid-19 pandemic continues to roll across the world, many of us have been coming to grips with working remotely.
Paralegals and their peers are no exception. The days of walking over to a lawyer’s desk for clarifications are gone; legal operations and administrative support workers have had to learn how to communicate and work productively from their own homes.
Yet all of the articles and reports out there seem to focus solely on the lawyer’s experience; once again, the paralegal has been pushed into the background. Not for us, though. We wanted to hear about the paralegal's experience during the pandemic and consequential lockdowns. What challenges have paralegals and law clerks experienced during this time? What helps them deliver quality service for their team and clients?
So we reached out to paralegals across the globe and asked about their role, productivity working and collaborating remotely, the challenges they are facing, and how life in 2020 is affecting their health.
In general, we found that paralegals are experiencing significant pressures, including increasing workloads and anxiety around Covid-19, all of which have had an impact on mental health. They are experiencing family health issues, the loss of colleagues, lost income, and isolation.
We all know that paralegals, law clerks, and administrators are a critical, but often undervalued, part of the legal process. They are at the forefront of forging and maintaining strong relationships, both internally and externally, and with stakeholders, clients, and colleagues. The lack of support for paralegals and their fellow legal administration professionals places law firms at risk, including firms managing immense amounts of entity and corporate governance data.
The message to employers is loud and clear - it’s time to take notice of employee health, both physical and mental. If your employees are not supported, there is likely to be a real business impact on client relationships, talent retention, and the ability of legal teams to work effectively.
It must be employers’ priority to provide the right tools, systems, and resources to support paralegals. In doing so, legal teams can enable better communication and collaboration, empower team members to be more efficient and profitable, and improve employee health and happiness.
As leaders in the legal industry, our role is to support legal professionals, especially paralegals, as they navigate this unprecedented time. If the findings in this report ring true for you, our technology and services can help legal teams become more successful even in the face of a drastically changing world.
Founder and CEO, Athennian
About This Research:
- We conducted a survey in the summer and fall of 2020
- We surveyed 323 legal professionals, the majority of whom were paralegals
- The majority of participants were from North America
- On some questions, respondents were allowed to select multiple options
- For additional details and survey statistics, download the free research report here
Part 1: How Has The Pandemic Changed Our World And Our Work?
- 63% of participants reported increased productivity at home compared to the office
- 40% of survey respondents felt their workloads had increased during the pandemic
In a world of lockdowns, social distancing, and furious hand washing, we are still figuring out a new way of living and working. The legal community must rise to this challenge by recognizing the pressures some of our most vital staff are experiencing. Without paralegals, law clerks, and corporate secretaries working efficiently, legal operations will become increasingly difficult to manage.
Up to 47% of Canadians are currently working at home, and multiple studies show this figure is mirrored in many other parts of the world. While many companies would, pre-pandemic, shy away from remote work due to security, productivity, and collaboration concerns, we know now that not only is remote work possible - in some cases, it’s desirable. Data shows that workers are generally more productive at home, causing the corporate world to rethink past norms in favor of the new normal.
Many workers are reluctant to go back into the office full-time, especially while the virus lingers. And the overall, unexpected success of working from home has sparked speculation that teams will strike a balance between the home and the office even after the pandemic. Additionally, a post-Covid world will likely include a much higher proportion of permanent home workers than before the coronavirus pandemic.
63% of paralegals told us they felt more productive at home than in the office. And 40% said workloads had increased. In fact, the demand for paralegals is on the rise. And while overall productivity has been high and workers enjoy wearing comfy clothes and saving on commuter expenses, working from home has also been frustrating and stressful, particularly for teams struggling with outdated technology that was not designed for modern work.
Many legal operations teams are still using outdated processes and systems that form an obstacle course out of everyday workflows. Navigating these hurdles slows down work and increases the risk for errors and costly mistakes. For example, managing entity data via spreadsheets dramatically increases the risk of human error and version confusion.
These outdated processes also force paralegal teams to waste their energy on tiresome, inefficient workflows instead of applying their skills to higher-return projects.
The data tells us that teams are doing their best to stay productive, even without the right tools, but at what cost to employees?
Working from home has real challenges. And as a result of the challenges from this year and the remote work situation, employee mental health is suffering. People work longer hours, blurring the lines between work and personal lives, and struggling to find human connection in a video conference world.
Technology can help mitigate some of these challenges. Deploying Cloud-based entity management platforms is proven to streamline workflows, improve communication, and make collaboration easier. And the ultimate benefit to Cloud technology is that it works wherever work is being done.
That said, technology doesn’t solve all of the problems facing the workforce and the paralegal community. But it’s a start. Removing that obstacle course of manual workflows and slow, outdated databases can help paralegals feel less burnt out and less stressed out while keeping productivity levels high and allowing companies to think about the next step in empowering legal teams.
Part 2: How Has Working Remotely Changed and Challenged Us?
- 50% of participants rated the responsiveness of lawyers as “the same” as pre-pandemic
- 27% of respondents said communication and collaboration were their biggest struggles while working remotely, and another 11% felt their software tools were the most significant burden
- Many survey responses also called out distractions at home and the inability to “unplug” after work hours
In this “new world,” discussion about the benefits associated with remote work has become widespread. Such a drastic change in the way we experience our jobs has created a desire to understand how it will affect us long-term, for better or worse.
Companies can experience benefits by continuing remote work such as:
- Increased productivity
- Reduced operating costs (cost of premises and office overheads reduced)
- Lower staff turnover due to improved work/life balance of staff
- Reduced recruitment costs
While employees may find gains of their own due to remote work like:
- Increased personal performance and greater job satisfaction
- Reduced commuter time and costs
- Flexible hours
- Increased autonomy
As our research shows, while many employees enjoy working from home, they also have specific difficulties.
As we look to the future, perhaps we can imagine there will be fewer distractions when schools reopen. Maybe we can even look to employers to encourage “no work” hours to help employees strike a work-life balance, or as we’ve said at Athennian, a work-life integration. While we speculate on what the future will look like, we know for certain - there are solutions to these problems.
And there are solutions to the problems related to communication and collaboration, and frustrating, inefficient technology. Solving the latter can be quick and relatively painless with the right tools.
Whether we all run back to the office, hesitantly return to the commute, or pursue a hybrid model, employers are ill-advised to keep employees at home without putting the right tools and processes in place to support them long-term.
Investing in Infrastructure, Returns in Productivity and Employee Satisfaction
For many companies, a fully remote staff was never in the cards. But now that they have seen the benefits of productivity and cost savings on physical spaces, they may be enchanted with the proposition of continuing the work from home model well after the pandemic is behind us.
It’s fair to say that many companies shifted to remote work with little to no preparation and without a culture of remote work at their organization. This overnight work shift meant that many teams lacked the right infrastructure to help their teams succeed remotely. As we scrambled in April and May to figure out Zoom backgrounds and became more comfortable in the virtual world, we were also anticipating a return to the workplace in the near future.
As May turned to July and July to September, here we are in December 2020, still largely at home. Taking all of this into account, we know that if they haven’t already, organizations need to invest in the right infrastructure to support their teams. The right processes and systems can make all the difference when working, regardless of where people work.
Take, for example, the entity management space. Most entity management tools available today were built last century... They were built before Netflix was physically mailing DVDs. Asking teams to be more productive and increase their workloads and manage the distractions of working at home with tools that outdated is like asking us to write this report using a Blackberry.
Legal Teams are Struggling to Communicate and Collaborate
Loneliness is a real challenge right now. 22% of survey respondents reported struggling with loneliness since the pandemic hit. How can teams combat this? Let’s look at what else survey participants said. Nearly a third of them noted communicating and collaborating was their biggest struggle while working remotely. If your team feels they can’t effectively communicate and work with their team, it correlates that almost a quarter of them feel isolated.
Improving communication and collaboration can have a waterfall of benefits. First, it can help teams manage feelings of isolation. Holding regular team meetings, investing in better chat programs, and even holding virtual social events for team building are all techniques adopted in the face of COVID-19.
Secondly, improving communication and collaboration within your workflows enables your teams to work more efficiently and effectively while simultaneously combatting isolation. Cloud technology is one example of how to implement better communication and collaboration within your teams.
Using software designed and hosted in the Cloud allows your team to work together in real-time, keeping communication open and transparent. Additionally, automated workflows found in modern technology improve collaboration and reduce frustrating, manual processes. For example, e-filing a new entity or passing documents on to signatories with e-sign technology is a better way to manage collaborative projects and multi-step processes.
Why does investing in infrastructure and improving communication and collaboration across your organization matter for the business? Besides the fact that people are the most valuable asset at any company, there is a hard and fast business case for these changes.
33% of survey respondents said they were struggling to stay motivated. Burnout. Turnover. Decreased productivity. Loss of revenue. All of these are solid business-backed reasons to make the change, keep your teams engaged, and give them the right tools to stay that way today and tomorrow.
Part 3: How Are We Reinvesting In Our People?
- 36% of respondents said their mental health was suffering due to stress
- 21% have seen a reduction in household income
- 22% reported losing colleagues, primarily due to layoffs
Just as companies need to look at how they invest in the right infrastructure to succeed, they also need to look at how they invest in their people to help them succeed. Reducing stress is key to supporting employees. With 36% of surveyed employees reporting a strain on their mental health due to stress, organizations should look at where they can remove stress. And, they should look at how they can help employees cope.
Looking back at how to solve for technical infrastructure can also help employers tackle stress management for their teams, particularly paralegals. Providing paralegals with the right tools to do their work with less frustration and fewer mistakes would undoubtedly help to alleviate stress. While that may not solve the whole problem for employees, it is a start.
A few other suggestions for minimizing stress:
- Encourage employees to move around during working hours. Taking walks is one example.
- Make socializing accessible with virtual events like team lunches and coffee breaks over Zoom or a similar video conferencing tool.
- Recognize your employees. They’re working hard. Giving recognition is simple and pays considerable dividends in paralegal job satisfaction.
Fun fact, at Athennian, we hosted a lunch session where employees could play a virtual game together. It was a big hit with the team and helped our employees take a break and recharge their batteries.
Another area where survey respondents were feeling weighed down was in facing the loss of colleagues due to layoffs. The workforce reductions caused by COVID’s economic fallout was almost certainly relevant to the spike in stress-related mental health concerns. It is also a likely contributor to the aforementioned increase in workload.
We know what organizations can do to help teams that are being spread thin. Adding the right tools and technologies can have an immediate positive impact on your paralegals, and ultimately on your business. Our technology was built to improve the lives of paralegals. With an easy to use interface, integrations into the rest of your legal tech stack, and a faster processing time than standard databases, Athennian is not just a database; it’s a workspace for your team.
We cannot underestimate the value of paralegals. When supported and set up for success, they have the capacity to improve your whole organization. While they support lawyers and clients, and in doing so, fill a crucial role in the revenue operations of your company, they are also widely using outdated technology, manual processes, frustratingly hard to use tools. And they’re doing that while managing the stresses of a pandemic.
Our mission is to empower paralegals and legal professionals. As we look to fulfill that mission, we see how our technology and service teams are already making a difference for paralegals worldwide. But we also see an opportunity to empower paralegals by lifting them up, giving them recognition, and advocating for their success both through Athennian’s offerings and through a cultural shift in the legal industry.
We believe the post-pandemic future will continue to emphasize flexible working arrangements and the use of innovative legal technology to help paralegals, and legal teams at large, be more successful. And the team here at Athennian will continue leading the way.