The corner office has been the inner sanctum since the rise of law firms. In law firms often adorned with marble, wood paneled walls and perhaps even faux columns, it was a shrine within the shrine. The occupant of the office would always decorate it with plaques and mementos dating back decades. The occupant’s goal was to permeate an air of importance. Everyone who entered the firm, employees and clients alike, felt compelled to play along. Of course, all the other trappings were also present—a gatekeeper receptionist, offices lining the windows, each sized according to the occupant’s perceived importance, and cubicles filling the middle, those too arranged according to some pecking order.
All of this has always been carefully arranged, usually in high cost real estate. It was as if the arrangement was critical to what the customer was buying, and the law firm was selling. Perhaps before the explosion of law office technology the arrangement did foster orderly completion of the work. The other accoutrements were said to be necessary to fulfill clients’ expectations. A multitude of research demonstrates clients, individual and corporate, have long ago grown weary of legal costs, which are at least partially inflated by these sanctums.
Then recently, at least recently when compared to decades old law firm structure, new generations arrived. There were stories in the news of companies having flexible workspace, flexible working hours, bean bag chairs and even ping pong tables. The gerontocracy of law firms scoffed; such changes were deemed no more than children playing with computers. The Partners of the law firms concluded the law was too sophisticated for such frivolity. Employees always had to be present, accounted for and dressed in a fashionable suit for the times. Hours after all had to be billed or the law firm would die, right? Employees having no choice actually aspired to this often soul crushing lifestyle.
Inefficient Use of Real Estate
Although this article is about much more than space planning, think about the functionality of partner office space. Nearly any Associate will tell you a Partner’s office is where the least amount of work gets done. Meanwhile, in nearly all law firms the presenteeism culture applies only to employees. Partners have flexibility in how and where they work, maintain and build the firm. Ironically the partner shrine is the largest but often the emptiest part of a law firm. Although leaders of any business need privacy on demand in order to make the “big” decisions, that privacy can be had via email, video conference and flexible workspace. Partner work should be accomplished without the cultural divide caused by office space.
Meanwhile, employee workspace in medium and large firms, for both staff and Associates, is based upon the presenteeism culture, which may have been necessary before the technology age. The general justification, that presenteeism is necessary to keep track of employees, is laughable. Technology and data tracks everything —every phone call, email, and to the extent this will still exist, billable hour. Today it seems employees lack flexibility in what they do for a reason that no longer exists. Technology long ago solved that problem.
Much of the proposed flexibility has been enjoyed by small and solo practitioners for years. They in effect skipped the partnership track and practice on their own, partly to enjoy some flexibility in their lifestyle. However, solos too are working hard to be successful. Those taking the bigger law firm route have long felt that they had to trade some lifestyle for the prestige, money or stability of a bigger firm to be successful.
Moreover, because of technology the lifestyle advantages of Partners and small firm practitioners can now be delivered to the Associates and employees of medium and large law firms. That sounds like the right thing to do.
And Then There Was a Pandemic…
If law firms are not motivated to evolve with technology the worldwide pandemic will force the change. The pandemic is causing layoffs in medium and large law firms. Certainly, law firms will be motivated, perhaps for the first time, to lower real estate costs and use technology to create more efficiently produced legal services. Law firms will quickly learn they can improve profits with a properly managed remote workforce. But this is about more than staying profitable.
A new mindset is taking hold. While no one enjoys the tragedy of the worldwide pandemic, it is changing the world. A great deal of practicing law can be done from a computer screen, anywhere in the world. Law firm employees have been sent home to work, annihilating the presenteeism culture. In person client meetings, once a cornerstone of law practice, are at a trickle. Consumers may be congregating in restaurants, bars, churches and vacation spots. However, what client wants to risk a plague to see a lawyer? Many managing partners are waiting, often in their office, for a return to the old normal. The old normal is not retuning. There is no reason to believe employees or clients will return to a less advantageous way of life when the pandemic is over. To attract high quality employees and many clients, flexibility must be part of the package. This evolution was afoot long before the pandemic. Now law firms will have no choice but change their mindset and heed the demands of employees and clients.
Even recent changes in professional responsibility standards play into the unexpected events of the pandemic. Firms can expand their geographic footprint quickly through virtual law offices, which are now specifically approved in several jurisdictions. Limited scope work goes hand in hand with these changes. This evolution will even influence emerging multi-jurisdictional practice rules.
Back to Space Planning
So, from a space planning perspective will it be all bean bag chairs and ping pong tables? Of course not. We have learned, however, workspaces in law firms, for Partners and Associates alike, are simply inefficient. What if square footage was not dedicated to one person but rather redesigned to serve the different practice groups of the firm? Significant portions of the workspace would belong to everyone in the group—Partners, Associates, and Paralegals. The workspace would contain everything they need to do their work as a team. This feels collaborative. However, everyone also needs workspace to think and work in private. But workspace no longer must be the proverbial dedicated office with a window, because that will no longer be a measure of success. The measure of an Associate’s and support staff’s success will be workspace anywhere in the world of their choice while efficiently and profitably serving clients.
In all industries square footage per employee has been shrinking for years. This should have been particularly so in law, as a great deal of law office space had been committed to books and files. By now all of that should be in the cloud, accessible from a laptop. Remote work will soon be the norm with workspace populated sporadically by members of the team as need be. Law office space will now be even smaller but more functional.
The lone justifiable excuse for slow change should be a current iron clad lease. When the workspace is reconfigured the loss of personal space may not sit well with anyone. Higher profits shared among all and better lifestyle will undoubtedly prevail.
Will the New Normal Be Healthy?
Some questions have been raised about the pandemic work-lifestyle. For example, family, kids and dogs interrupt the workday. Adjustments will be made, and in the end, employees will pick the flexibility every time. The money and time saved not commuting, and the cost of those fancy work clothes alone makes the answer a foregone conclusion. Speaking of fashion again, strict dress codes are also an artifact, except for where professional dress will still be required, meaning only Courtrooms. Another objection has been that workspace at home may be less than perfect. That too will adjust and if not, workspace will always be available at the office. We have also heard working at home fosters depression and social isolation. As humans we crave socialization. It is not working from home that is causing the depression and isolation. It is the overall pressure of the pandemic causing the problem. When the pandemic is over ask just about any employee, if they’d prefer the option of working from a house near a crowded beach. You know the answer. Lastly, there is the fear that remote work might expose confidential information. The law profession has always been averse to change. Thus, this is a very predictable objection from those holding on to an old mindset. Granted there are challenges. The modern world is up to those challenges. Human factor training and cyber insurance and protocols should carry the day. Or should the profession keep the old model? Will the old model attract the best and the brightest to the profession as nearly all other industries offer the flexibility dreamed about in this article?
If you are an Associate reading this article “demand” this evolution—without jeopardizing your job, of course, which might be impossible depending upon who is in that corner office. Be sure your trusted staff also benefits. Certainly, the boss, if nothing else, will understand the likelihood of more profit. If you are the occupant of that big office, certainly in an age when lawyers are generally viewed as unaffordable, more profit sounds good, right? If some part of you wants to hold on to the old ways, sorry, but those are not coming back. Soon your position will be held by one of those kids who not that long ago was on a bean bag chair playing with that computer contraption. These changes will be made sooner or later. Make the changes now to attract better talent, make more profit and assure the future of the law firm.