As law firms slowly begin the return to the office, panelist at a recent Thomson Reuters Institute forum wondered what the future of the law firm office will look like
NEW YORK — At the Thomson Reuters’ 20th Annual Law Firm COO & CFO Forum, dueling visions of the future came into conflict.
Kimberly Sullivan, Co-Studio Director and Principal at Gensler, put forward that for all of its success, the work-from-home model was not going to suffice going forward in the legal industry. And she was not alone in this argument. Both Jim Jones, Senior Fellow at the Center on Ethics and the Legal Profession at Georgetown University Law Center, and Gretta Rusanow, Head of Advisory Services for the Law Firm Group of Citi Private Bank, (during their own State of the US Legal Market presentation) pointed their fingers at the model as a partial explanation for why young associates were so susceptible to lateral acquisitions. According to Jones and Rusanow, because associates had spent so much of their time in front of a screen rather than in an office, they never had the chance to develop the “glue” that would hold them to the firm. In a conference defined by the war for talent, returning to the office became the first battlefront.
Thus, a Reversion faction emerged early in the Forum, first from the audience of the opening sessions and then by presenters who reinforced the idea later on in the conference. The argument was a simple one: culture would win out in the end. Those lawyers who willingly returned to the office would have a leg up on their absentee protégée, and eventually things would sort themselves out. Lawyers who failed to return would miss out on social connections and tribal knowledge, thus weakening their standing within the firm. Indeed, if one wanted to make it as a lawyer in today’s market, they would have no choice but to return to the office.
Some modifications of this argument were less Darwinian, of course, with firms considering return to office mandates that would put everyone on the same footing. Either way, things would go back to the way they used to be.
Because associates had spent so much of their time in front of a screen rather than in an office, they never had the chance to develop the “glue” that would hold them to the firm.
There was another argument that emerged, however, one which seemed to be of the opinion that opportunity can arise from crisis. Composed primarily of speakers, this faction argued for nothing less than revolution. Every presenter seemed to paint an increasingly rosy picture for the future of the law firm office. Technology hubs, bars, restaurant, massages — the future of the law firm office seemed to more resemble a lavish hotel or resort than a workplace. This was not unintentional. The faction focused on the idea that the best way to get people back to work was to make them want to be there. Jones used the term “golden handcuffs” to describe the idea of retaining young associates by making the office, staff, and by extension the firm, indispensable to the lawyer’s work.
How would this vast expansion be financed? Well, it appears that the complete rejection of the work-from-home model may be premature. Lawyers have grown attached to the freedom which the model provides. In what is increasingly a seller’s labor market, firms may not be able to afford the retraction of that freedom. Yet for all its apparent ills when it comes to associate retention, remote working has been a boon when it comes to the real estate budgets of large law firms. Through tactics such as hoteling or hot desking, firms have the potential to free up a large amount of real estate.
Under these systems, lawyers would effectively trade their personal offices in exchange for maintaining a hybrid workstyle. Lawyers who are regularly in the building can keep their private workplaces, but those who are only in a few times a week may share their desk with other lawyers. In some cases, these firms would employ a hotel-like system where desks are reserved, offices cleaned between users, and the office itself takes on a concierge-like atmosphere. Sizeable amounts of real estate are thus opened up, either to be cut out permanently or repurposed into the community-focused spaces which can provide the sort of value no lawyer can obtain at home. Thus, so the theory goes, would those desperately needed young associates willingly slip on the golden handcuffs.
It may never be so easy. Law firms are a conservative bunch. On many occasions, a revolution has seemingly been on the horizon only for it to peter out when faced with the opposition of the tried and tested. One merely needs to look towards the oft-forecasted death of the billable hour to see this industry inertia in action. If it is a battle between two visions of the future, then the Reversion faction has the terrain advantage.
Yet like many things, the events that have been sweeping the world since the early days of 2020 may provide just enough pressure to overcome the old regime. While his own personal attempts to push existing models into obsolescence may not have always been successful, the inventor Buckminster Fuller nevertheless provides some interesting food for thought for the Revolution faction: “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete