I saw this article today, click here https://www.attorneyatwork.com/post-pandemic-law-office-in-person-meetings/
This article caught my attention because it is about a question that does regard us all: do we still need our brick-and-mortar offices?
I should in principle be able to relate to the author because we both graduated from high school in the same year. The author and I are both not millennials, we are generation X. Generation X-ers are usually easy-going people, research describes us as „active, happy, and achieving a work-life balance”. Our cohort has been credited “with entrepreneurial tendencies”, and we were the last generation in the Western world for whom attending university was broadly speaking “financially remunerative”.
The author is looking at the new work-from-home (WFH) scheme that every one of us goes through.
The Starting Point: Yes, We Can Do It
This is where the author is coming from:
“If you’re like me, these video calls and webinars are beginning to lose their luster. I miss in-person meetings. I miss real connections. And I wonder what the future will bring for the legal profession. What will the post-pandemic law firm look like? Will it be totally virtual? And will that be truly effective? Will I even still want to practice law?
One thing is for sure. We have proven ourselves. Attorneys and law firm staff have transformed overnight from working in an office to working remotely. Who says we’re not tech-savvy? OK, it wasn’t without its challenges, but we made it work, served our clients, and billed our hours. My worry is the number of law firm managers who are looking at this highly productive workforce and wondering, “Why do we need the costly overhead of an office building?”
And she is right. Law firms are relatively easy to transform into the cloud, from a technical point of view, if only the owners are willing to do this.
However, there are also several non-tangible obstacles that have to be overcome. And these go deep because they all have to do with individual personality issues.
Why People Do Want to Go Back to the Office
First, there are people who do not have a very fulfilled private social life, and these are very common in the law profession. These people love to bill hours, and I find that these people enjoy the new WFH schemes very much because they can even bill more than before: from immediately rolling out from bed until 5 minutes before they go back to bed. These powerhouses hate to be disturbed when they do what they love most: solving problems and writing billing hours. They will not want to go back to the office, for several reasons.
But this is not the cloth from which the author is cut. She writes:
“I Miss the Law Firm Life
I’m sure many attorneys do very well and actually thrive in a work-from-home environment. I’ll admit, that’s not my style. I enjoy the firm life. I prefer to be part of a team and able to collaborate with my colleagues in an office. I enjoy the personal interaction with clients as well as the camaraderie with my coworkers that working in a physical office provides. That “live” contact, in my opinion, can’t be replaced by a Zoom meeting or a telephone call.
I have a real fear that the “new normal” will continue to be predominately virtual. I’m ready to go back to the office and reconnect. I need people!”
The author seemingly belongs to that part of the working population that confuse their workplace with an ongoing social event. In the old times, you could find these people nearby coffee machines and in social rooms, or chit-chatting on the aisles or in the file storage room. They would know what is going on in the firm, and office politics is their domain. When there is some weight to be moved they would make sure that others, and not themselves, will get to do the heavy lifting. These people not only depend on people who do the actual lifts, they would also act as middle-managers that consolidate the work done before it goes to a “little king” lawyer for final approval. This is how they can enjoy the hierarchy of a little kingdom, with their own safe position within that hierarchy.
These times are now gone.
Virtual Environments Are Lethal To “Little Kings”
A virtual environment makes that “little kingdom” set-up less likely to happen. In a work environment that is based on a division of labor like in our firm, the transition from brick-and-mortar to the cloud suddenly brought clear definitions of interfaces between responsibilities, and that firm-wide: we have no longer individuals who co-operate on the basis of a set of mostly unspoken rules, we have instead positions with clear sets of instructions that have to be followed in order to provide the required result. These positions are filled out by a team of people with similar expertise and experience, each individual wearing several hats at the same time, thereby being able to provide backup when needed. The former managers became more like workload balancers, and we have started to automate their load balancing work where possible. In such an environment, individual performance can easily be checked and compared. That reduces space for office politics. And no more coffee machine meetings are needed to be part of the gang.
Today, in a virtual law firm environment, it is just about doing your work reliably, and you are good.
Is Having a Brick-and-Mortar Location Still Essential for Most Law Firms?
I do not think that having a brick-and-mortar location is essential for law firms in the future, and the author of the above-cited article also has no good reason to present in favor of that model. This is what she writes:
“Clients often have a lot at stake when they are involved in a legal matter. When the pressure is on, they like to meet with their attorney face to face. It is also important for the attorney to be able to meet with a client in private, observe their body language, and make eye contact when preparing them for a deposition or trial.”
And this is probably the strongest reason for the physical presence of a law firm: to provide a place that creates trust whenever there is a client who shows up in your firm. But that can be as little as a single meeting room that is attached to a receptionist area and to one or two office rooms for those lawyers that need to be present during that meeting. That office space is probably better posh and located in an expensive area of town. But be prepared that we may not be able to access that posh office space during the next lockdown period.
I also found that clients like it when we show up at their place, instead of coming to our office. A representative car – a spectacular oldtimer – may be the better option, as compared with a posh office.
And in our case where we provide work in the very specialized legal area of Intellectual Property (IP), most of our clients are not even located in our own country. So why would they want to come to see us, and that in times of travel restrictions due to Covid-19?
“Training and Creative Cooperation is Better in Brick-and-Mortar Environments.” Really? Says Who?
This is the last sheet-anchor of the author:
“Colleagues also need a place where they can ask each other questions, develop strategies, and benefit from each other’s knowledge and experience.
What happens to the practice of law if we stop learning from each other?
Physically working together leads to a better work product, enhanced productivity, more engaged coworkers, and better teamwork and coordination. As Ken Blanchard says in “The One Minute Manager,” “None of us is as smart as all of us.”
But this is all about rhetoric. Successful strategies for solving cases are mostly developed between two lawyers, one of them much older than the other one. That is still done over the phone in virtual law firms. Bigger problems can be split into smaller problems during larger virtual team discussions, using a project management tool such as Asana, and that is done much more efficiently than in the old meeting room discussions.
And when it comes to “learning from each other”, we have a weekly online teaching platform in place for presenting one interesting case that one of the lawyers or the paralegals encountered recently.
There are also daily short team meetings, not longer than 5 minutes each, for exchanging important information. Everyone attends these short team meetings, even while being on leave. That is how work-life balance works in practice. Holidays get integrated into work, and vice-versa, to the benefit of the individuals that form the law firm.
Being On The Bus or Off The Bus
The author again resorts to rhetorics when it comes to her own perspective:
In his book “Give and Take,” Adam Grant, an expert on organizational psychology, refers to people as givers and takers:
“When colleagues are supportive, they go out of their way to be givers rather than takers, working to enhance our productivity, make us look good, share ideas, and provide timely help.”
Too much physical separation makes it difficult to build teams and create those supportive relationships. “Teams need the opportunity to learn about each other’s capabilities and develop productive routines,” Grant says in a separate piece. “So once we get the right people on the bus, let’s make sure they spend some time driving together.”
I think this applies to lawyers and law firms. We need to work together — not in isolation — and become givers. I’m really looking forward to getting back on the bus with my coworkers.”
That picture “get the right people on the bus” stems from Jim Collins` classic book “Good to Great”. And it means that the right people should be on the bus, while the wrong people should be off the bus. That is exactly what the Covid-19 pandemic brought to law firms: those who thrive while working from home are those right people that should be on the bus. While those who don´t thrive under these new conditions find themselves being off the bus.
Please Save My Soul! Is There Really No Way Back?
It is very obvious that those who can sense that they soon will find themselves “off the bus” are now promoting “more flexible” designs. So does the author of the above-mentioned article:
“Today, law firm life looks different depending on where you are. In the northeast, more law firms are beginning to move toward staggered, alternating schedules to start prying employees out of their homes and begin some semblance of regular operations.
Perhaps the ideal post-pandemic outcome would be the “flexible law office.” After all, we’ve demonstrated that we can be both mobile and successful. Perhaps firms will evolve to allow attorneys and staff to have the best of both worlds. Maybe the culture of old-fashioned “face time just for the sake of face time,” will fade away and a new culture of flexible, customizable work schedules will replace it.
When we collaborate and regularly share our ideas and thoughts, we are more productive. And I believe that some — but not all — of that collaboration needs to be face to face. A combination of physical and virtual will make us more productive — and our legal work product will reflect that.
Simply put, a flexible law office will make us better lawyers.
If firms combine the advantages of being virtual with the benefits of having an established, albeit possibly smaller, office space, we might become the healthiest, happiest, and best attorneys we can be!”
These desperate rhetorics speak for themselves. The author may be part of a law firm kingdom that is now facing hard times. Some law firms that refuse to abandon that old-fashioned model will come back in the hybrid format that she laid out above, but only for a limited time.
The writing sits there on the wall, right under our noses: the future is virtual law firms.
No, Virginia, We Will NOT Go Back to the Old Times
According to my own experience, these are the new times, and all this happens in a virtual environment:
- Workload balancers will make sure that cases are dealt with in a timely manner, and costs and quality are closely checked.
- Personal Key Performance Indicators (KPI´s) are used for developing performance-linked wages
- Since jobs and interfaces between all positions are well-described, responsibilities in law firms can be better automated, if not outsourced to motivated people who work in less expensive regions of the country, or even overseas.
- Job openings can be published to hundreds of thousands of people over the Internet, as their actual place of residence is irrelevant, as long as they are willing to work during the core opening hours of the law firm.
- Those people who should be off the bus are now recognizing that fact, and they start to leave the law firm. They are looking to find “greener pastures”, as they hope.
- Those people who should be on the bus are now recognizing the advantages of working in a virtual environment and they refuse to come back to the old-fashioned “brick-and-mortar” work model, and they even refuse to adopt a “flexible law office” work model as outlined above.
This is NOT a Novel Message
The virtual law office work model is not a concept that only became apparent during the recent Covid-19 pandemic. One could see that work concept coming for a long time.
I have even given a talk about this virtual firm concept, back in May 2018. My talk is here:
After minute 0:30:00 of my talk, I describe in detail how law firms became automated and why we soon will have law firms that resemble more to curators of third-party services than to those legal one-stop-shops that we know from the old times.
We law firms are not doing this major shift exercise for a self-purpose.
The ultimate reason for our law firms to exist is to provide what our clients are willing to pay for.
This is what our clients expect, whether it comes from a brick-and-mortar law firm or from a virtual law firm:
- Clients care most about their individual contacts to their law firms. That point governs everything. And that did not change during Covid-19. Loyalty to law firms as such never existed.
- Clients also care very much about delivery in a timely manner, about quality, and about keeping within the budget that has been agreed upon. In that order.
In order to achieve our clients` goals in the future, we law firms have to:
- increase system redundancy without increasing costs (speaking as a systems design engineer)
- increase tactical dislocation of our firm´s actual workplaces in order to reduce the negative effects of casualties during local office shut-downs (speaking as a military engineer)
- attract more high-performance collaborators to join our virtual law firm (speaking as a recruitment engineer)
- reward high-performance collaborators with less commuting time and with safety from being infected with Covid-19 (speaking as a team leader)
- provide a transparent system that tells you every evening whether your law firm has generated profit or not (speaking as an entrepreneur)
Take all this together and you end up with a virtual law firm concept that is also much safer than the old time’s law firms, in every aspect.
And we should be grateful for the chances that come with Covid-19. Fifty percent (50%) of our clients are feeling fear of death during the ongoing pandemic, this is what all recent surveys say. And that is the reason why those die-hard defenders of the brick-and-mortar law firm culture have a difficult time preventing us from replacing the old horse carts by modern internal combustion engine cars, to cite a common change of one hundred (100) years ago.
You better push for a change of your own law firm to a virtual law firm, if you can. Or look for a new workplace in one of the virtual law firms that are currently springing up out there. You can recognize them from the job ads on their websites: you can find an example on my own firm´s website, click here https://trademarks-patents.com/we-are-hiring/
Martin “Change” Schweiger