Straits Times Interview 08/2021 – The Law Firm Of the Future
This is an interview held with Mr. K.C. Vijayan of the Straits Times Singapore, on 30 July 2021.
Mr. Vijayan is abbreviated as “KC”, and Martin Schweiger is abbreiated as “MS”.
KC: Where do you see the law firm of the future?
MS: For more than 25 years, law firms have steadily been losing certain types of work, mostly to the Internet. That trend will continue, and Covid-19 has accelerated that. Successful law firms will specialise in very specific areas, move their IT to the cloud, and provide 100% remote work places.
KC: Why do law firms need to specialise?
MS: Law firms used to be the first point of contact for all legal questions. That time is now over. Both companies and consumers now check the Internet for information before they seek specific legal advice. It gives them better results. However, it also means that lawyers must specialise in order to be noticed. The Internet is a noisy place, so the more specific the specialisation, the better because you stick out from the noise. Specialists can also demand higher fees than generalists.
KC: How did your own firm specialise?
MS: 3 years ago we decided to focus only on patents and helping clients to turn ideas into money. We even gave up our formal law firm registration. Today, we are purely a patent attorney agency.
KC: Who does your work that requires a Singapore lawyer certificate in place?
MS: After delisting as a law firm, we started referring this work to other law firms. We actually became a source of work for local lawyers. Now they trust us and often ask for our support in patent-related cases. We handle these under a professional certification by the Intellectual Property Office of Singapore (IPOS).
KC: I see, that is truly a creative way to specialise in law. And why is it critical to have your IT environment in the cloud?
MS: Law firm work is always the result of teamwork, and cloud software facilitates teamwork, especially companies that provide services that were previously in-house, such as accounting and typing. Cloud software also makes maintenance of IT systems easier, because there are no more servers on the firm’s premises, and fewer IT staff required.
KC: Why would a law firm want to provide 100% remote workplaces?
MS: Contrary to what most people think, cost reduction is not the main reason because office rents are not a huge part of the operational costs of a law firm. The real reason for promoting 100% remote work is that the people who thrive under remote working conditions are also those who are more efficient. Law firms with efficient people will do better than those with inefficient people. Working from home allows employees to save commute time. I have observed that people who enjoy working from home are usually self-starters who prefer working without being interrupted by co-workers. People who thrive in a home office environment are very selective in how they use their time, and mothers with children seem to have an extra advantage.
KC: Can you put figures to your statements about remote work vs. brick-and-mortar office work?
MS: Yes. 20% of the workforce never wants to go back to their brick-and-mortar office again, while 4% never would want to work from home. The remaining 86% in between want a hybrid solution with one to four days per week in the office. We prefer those 20% who want to work from home, because they are the more efficient employees. And you cannot force these 20% highly efficient people back to the brick-and-mortar office, because they would rather resign and join another company offering 100% remote work. You can currently see this happening in the USA when you follow the newspapers there.
KC: What is the impact of remote work on your own firm? Do you need less office space?
MS: We have reduced our office space by 80%. We still have a large meeting room, which has not been used since last year. And we have a few “hot desks” for those who really need to come to the office. The biggest impact is probably on our workforce. Pre-Covid-19, out firm hat 15 employees in Singapore. Now, we are down to 8 employees in Singapore, of which only one who is not a Singapore citizen. Plus a number of remote freelancers in foreign countries. While our workforce numbers have been constant, 50% from 2020 have left. They were replaced by those who are more efficient and adapted to remote working. It has also positively affected hiring—we now receive 120 applications for each new job opening. Of these, 50% are serious, resulting in 2 to 3 job interviews with excellent candidates. Before Covid-19, we would be happy if we received 10 local job applications.
KC: What is the impact of remote work on the general business environment in Singapore?
MS: I can only speak for the legal services area, but other service businesses are similar. I believe that 50% of the office space in Singapore at large is currently not required. This is because 20% of jobs will completely move to home offices, and the remaining 80% will comprise of employees who work only 2 or 3 days per week in a brick-and-mortar office. They are likely to share their desks, thereby reducing the required office space. A similar reduction in use applies to public transport and roads. The Singapore economy needs to double before we revert to pre-Covid-19 levels again. That will take at least 15 years.
KC: Thank you, Mr. Schweiger, for your time.
MS: You are most welcome, Mr. Vijayan.