The genie is out of the bottle and there’s no way it’s going back in. That’s how most of the profession feels about the notion of giving up new-found freedoms to return to office-centric working after the pandemic.

But now that lawyers have proven that they can work effectively from home, what lasting working patterns will law firms adopt? And what will this mean for the many thousands of square feet of traditional office space currently occupied by law firms across the country? Is the office now defunct or does it simply need to be reinvented?

Remote control

“Lawyers have always worked on the basis that unless you’re in the office, you’re some kind of useless slouch,” remarks Tony Williams, founder of Jomati consultants. “That’s now been completely debunked, and the law firm results show the opposite. People have worked very effectively from home, free from distractions.”

“But in the last few months, people have started to feel that there’s a limit to the amount of home working they are comfortable with,” he adds. “We are fundamentally social animals. We miss the buzz, we’re all zoomed out and we want that level of interaction.”

The past few weeks have seen a glut of announcements from big city firms setting out new parameters for remote working. Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer and Norton Rose Fulbright, for example, have both said they will let lawyers work remotely up to 50 per cent of the time, while Linklaters set a figure of 20-50 per cent.

Other firms plan to take an even more flexible approach. Matthew Doughty, chief operating officer at DWF, says: “I don’t expect that we would lay down specific parameters [in terms of the percentage of time lawyers can work from home]; I’m not sure that culturally we would go to a model that was that prescriptive. But we expect that most of our people will only want to work in the office two or three days a week.

“As a service industry, we’ve adapted to work remotely, and business levels have been sustained throughout. But it’s becoming monotonous. If you’re asking people to reimagine a new way of working, I think they see the benefits of remote working, but that is tempered with the challenges.”

People are attracted by the idea of coming into the office to break the monotony, Doughty says, but it’s clear that the firm will not need as much office space as previously. That could have a positive effect on the bottom line, with DWF predicting annual savings of £600,000 in a planned revamp of its property strategy.

“Lawyers traditionally are paper-based, but now we know we can survive with very little access to old fashioned paper files. So instead of filing cabinets, we can move into offsite storage where you can call up a file within 24 hours. That will free up more space.

“With less need for storage and fewer people in the office on a daily basis, it’s a great opportunity to look at the size of the office. We anticipate we will only need up to 50 per cent of our current space,” Doughty reflects.

When it comes to shrinking the office footprint, Slater and Gordon is ahead of the pack, having boldly chosen not to renew the two-year lease on its London office last autumn. The firm has made a significant shift to remote working on a permanent basis.

Alicia Alinia, chief people officer at the firm, explains that a staff survey in May had shown that 80 per cent of people had a keen appetite for more remote working.

“Our people wanted to move from a firm where you could put in a request for flexible working, to somewhere where flexible working was the norm,” she asserts. “Traditionally, law is based on an input model; hours on the clock. But if you actually treat people as adults and change performance management to an output model – based on satisfying clients – then what does it matter if someone needs to pick up their children at 3pm? Now management can be confident that this model works.”

The firm invested heavily in digitising every file for remote access and has delivered more than 2,000 pieces of kit – including chairs and desks – to its lawyers across the country. Much of the job will now be expected to be done from home, but some things, such as client meetings, will still be office-based.

But what about lawyers who don’t have a decent space to work at home, or who simply prefer not to? Slater and Gordon has retained some London office space to accommodate these needs, and for lawyers to meet clients.

“We want to offer the choice to our people; the majority want to have at least a couple of days in the office,” says Alinia. But the firm is now searching for a new type of office. “Because of the lockdown, we’re still looking for premises that really fit with our future way of working, which is all about having a collaborative space,” she says.

So what will firms be looking for in their post-pandemic offices?

A good vibe

With much of the job being done from home in future, office time will be all about maximising social interaction and face-to-face contact. The office is where lawyers will come together to share ideas, give support and training and nurture the team spirit.

As Vidisha Joshi, managing director, strategy and operations consultant at Symphony Legal explains: “Law firms need to be reimagining how they view their office. It will be a place to engage employees, to innovate and collaborate. We can’t lose sight of the value of human interaction and connection; the pandemic has shown us how important this is for our wellbeing.”

She adds: “The legal sector could take a lot from looking at other sectors like the creative and technology worlds, and how they approach office design. For example, removing partitions from desks or having a long table instead of individual desks. More of a home away from home feel.”

One firm that is pioneering this approach is Browne Jacobson, which will open a new style office with an “urban coffee lounge vibe” at No1 Spinningfields in Manchester next month. The firm has reduced the number of standard desks in favour of open plan workstations, and the space also has comfy seats and a sociable kitchen area.

There are multifunctional soundproofed rooms, fully kitted out with videoconferencing facilities, that can be used for meetings, team sessions, quiet working or court hearings. The overall ambience of the space is softened with ‘living walls’ covered in real plants and the use of natural images.

But if this all sounds rather expensive, the financial upside is that the square footage has now been slashed from 11,500 square feet to 6,500 square feet.

Dai Durbridge, the partner in charge of the move, explains that in November 2020, the firm conducted a survey of staff and discovered that 90 per cent expected to spend more time working away from the office than they had before the pandemic.

“So then the question was, if you’re going to be doing that, what will you be coming into the office for – what will you be trying to achieve in the office?” he muses. “It’s moving away from the idea of coming into the office to work for ten hours. It’s about the social aspect, being able to talk through a particular file that you’re working on, or an idea. Otherwise, the staff are happy working from home, or more flexibly than that.”

Durbridge adds: “We focused on creating a space where you can still work at a desk in the usual way, but that also has different spaces for different reasons. There’s a coffee shop feel, and the idea is to create a relaxing environment, an informal setting.”

In the north west, Browne Jacobson expects to grow to 125 people, yet the new office has just 36 desks. What happens if everyone decides to come into the office at the same time?

"Before the pandemic, we did four months of analysis of how desks were being used,” answers Durbridge. “Desk occupancy was around 50 per cent before the pandemic. We had people who weren’t in every day because they were seeing clients, out on the road and so forth.

“There will be more than 36 people who will be in, but they will have other spaces that they can work in just as comfortably. Normally when you come into the office, the first thing you do is drop your bag on a desk. We’re moving away from that and thinking, what does my working environment need to provide me with today? You might want to spend some time in the cool kitchen space or make a few calls wandering around or go into one of the booths. You don’t need to automatically gravitate to a desk.”

Often, it will be a case of needing somewhere to sit with your laptop for half an hour or so between meetings. But the firm also recognises that sometimes lawyers do need a proper desk, and it’s important for them to know that they can access one.

“One of the things that we wanted to avoid was, if you need a desk, not stressing that unless you get into the office at 7.30am, you will be beaten to it. We also want to make sure that junior staff are properly supported with a greater presence in the office,” notes Durbridge.

Staff are therefore able to book a desk in advance through an app, and they can also see who else is in that day. “So they might think, I’ve not seen that person for a while, I will pop in. Or a trainee can book a desk next to their supervisor; or perhaps if a lawyer is doing a corporate deal, they may need to be sitting at a desk for a few days.”

Might some staff simply book themselves a desk every day, in an attempt to cling to old habits? “There’s a risk of that,” concedes Durbridge. “But we’ll be managing it to make sure people aren’t just doing what they’ve always done.”

He adds that if staff do want to come into the office every day, they can do so; but they don’t necessarily need to be tethered to one desk. “After they’ve sat at a desk for a while they may say, I’m bored of sitting here, I’ll go in the kitchen and change my environment. We also have ‘up and down’ desks, so you can be standing for a while if you want.”

If the Manchester office proves a success, it will serve as a blueprint for similar moves in Browne Jacobson’s other offices - in Birmingham, London, Nottingham and Exeter. The “proof of the pudding” probably won’t come until late June or July, says Durbridge, and it’s a “suck it and see” approach that may need to be tweaked along the way.

Williams predicts that new office styles will be “quite experimental to start with”, adding “that’s nothing to be ashamed of”. He ponders: “Some things will work, some things will work for a time. If people are in the office less, to what extent do we make them double up on space and hot desk? Some lawyers will find it hard to do pure hot desking. In theory they shouldn’t, but in practice they will.”

And some senior lawyers may be reluctant to relinquish their treasured office. “Some partners like to have a bible for every deal they’ve ever closed. But that costs £100 per square foot to store in their office and they never look at it,” remarks Williams. “Even if they’re only in three days a week, will they give up their office? It will depend on how much the firm is prepared to force the issue.”

He adds: “There’s a lot to be gained by the mix and match approach. But firms won’t necessarily reduce their footprint that much.”

Location, location

Firms are not just rethinking the decor and size of their offices, but also their locations. Fariha Butt, partner at Saracens and a member of the Law Society’s law management section committee, says many firms are considering setting up local offices as an alternative to city centre premises that can be “expensive and inflexible”.

Joshi adds: “Having a big central office is great, but look at the location of your staff. We may now start seeing more satellite hubs that can be used flexibly, for example using WeWork or IWG, as they come equipped.”

What’s the advantage of a local office setup? “You have to realise that people now haven’t had the commute; it’s given people the gift of time and saved a huge expense when you consider commuting costs – thousands a year for some people. If you had an office that was a 15-minute bike ride away, with other staff who are in that locality, then you’re getting the benefit of collaborative working without the commute. And don’t forget, at the moment people are still concerned about the prospect of using public transport.”

Of course, staff who happen to live near one another may not work in the same team. Is there any point in providing a space for them to work together? “That human interaction is still invaluable,” insists Joshi. “In law firms, one of the problems can be silo working. This could be an opportunity to break that down.”

Local hubs could also do much to widen access to the profession. “Setting up these flexible hubs can attract talent for whom the cost of travelling into, for example, central London might be a stretch too far,” enthuses Joshi. “There’s a real opportunity for attracting young dynamic lawyers who may not want to do that commute; especially for firms that don’t have a budget [for a city centre office].

“They can offer them this lifestyle that you don’t have to come into a central office, but we will create this hub which is more commutable. Come to us, we will give you this work/life balance.”

Crossroads ahead

This new hybrid approach, combining remote working with a collaborative style office, has clear benefits for law firms and their staff. But it only works if the firm has the resources – and the mindset – to transform into a fully paperless way of operating. For many, that is a step too far.

Viv Williams, founder of Viv Williams Consulting, warns: “Around 3,000 firms will find this change completely unpalatable, and impossible to do. Much will depend on the age profile of partners in some of these law firms, and the appetite of many of them for change… Some firms are saying, we need to merge and be part of something bigger; we can’t cope with another lockdown, particularly combined with a 30 per cent hike in professional indemnity insurance premiums”.

Butt adds: “It really depends on the culture of the firm, and the leaders. There’s a mixed bag of opinion out there. Some people are really open to the idea, but there’s also a contingent that rejects it. The majority of these are smaller firms, and they don’t have the necessary infrastructure. They’re also perhaps dealing with a traditional client base.”

As we emerge from the pandemic, the dust will settle to reveal an array of different working models on offer from firms; and this could prove a deciding factor for recruitment. As Joshi observes: “One law firm that I spoke to recently is aiming for an 80 per cent return to the office by July. It simply wasn’t geared up for paperless working. But the risk is that you will lose staff.

“This will be a real differentiator in terms of where people want to work. It will change how people see the role. Firms will have to advertise whether the role is based in the office or flexible; it will make some firms more attractive.”

Alinia agrees: “There’s a drive from traditional firms to go back to the office, but that’s a mistake. This is a golden opportunity to bring the legal sector into the 21st century.”

Rachel Rothwell is a freelance journalist

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