October 07, 2021
October 07, 2021Law360
Commentators agree that the pandemic has changed, is changing, and will change the way law firms operate. But what does the new normal look like? For many law firms, it is clear that hybrid models of remote and in-office work will be necessary to succeed, collaborate and compete for talent in a post-COVID-19 marketplace.
Easily concluded. Not so easily executed.
Like most other firms, ours is currently working toward creating its new normal, though we were fortunate enough to begin before the pandemic struck. The insights that follow reflect our nearly three years of experience in planning for and experimenting with hybrid models, as well as evaluating challenges.
The pandemic confirmed what we first observed a number of years ago: that law firms and the way lawyers work needed to change dramatically given the ongoing evolution in technology and the demands of new generations of workers for a more flexible working environment.
A hybrid work model, including a significant shift to hoteling work arrangements, seemed to best position our firm for the future. But this kind of model will have significant and far-reaching implications for the culture, methods of operation, and practice of law of any firm that seeks to implement it.
We started with the premise that lawyers and paralegals at our firm would no longer have permanent offices — not the most senior partner nor the most junior project assistant — and that increasing amounts of work would be done outside the office by everyone, whether on the road or at home. When the pandemic hit, of course, the shift to work from home became the only option overnight. Within that context, what does a hybrid really look like?
Attention to detail is key. Consider all these specific but vital adjustments:
- An app to reserve available office or workspace and to monitor when team members will be in the office;
- Decisions about how long a professional can or should reserve that space;
- A method to transfer calls to selected offices;
- A laptop-only computer inventory with universal office ports;
- Passcode-encrypted lockers for personal files, notebooks, etc.; and
- Arranging for digital nameplates to appear outside designated office spaces and a digital map in the office lobby.
But firm values must drive the decisions about these logistical details and many other considerations.
For example, one of our early decisions was to dispense with the corner office, and configure space such that no office is larger or more prominent than any other. Different amenities might distinguish certain offices, but none would be objectively better than any other.
Beginning the transition to hoteling with the most senior lawyers — the ones most likely to experience the greatest disruption to their way of working that in some cases has been largely the same for decades — can soften the ground for more junior attorneys and build a firm-wide enthusiasm for new arrangements.
Fluidity is usually not a word associated with law firm operations.
But it is essential in navigating the hoteling environment. If attorneys don’t have their own offices, alternatives become more important. In this context, options may mean different office layouts for different tastes or customizable furniture, enabling people to tailor their office experience further.
Common areas should be newly imagined as well. Our approach was to include a large café in a prominent area, and a wide range of communal spaces — from small nooks to hallway gathering points to different types of conference rooms.
Adaptability should be an important consideration, certainly in terms of physical office space, but more importantly in terms of listening to apprehensions and jointly creating a new normal rather than privately enduring it.
Perhaps the most important consideration for any law firm in this evolving world is how to maintain and grow collaboration. The common wisdom is that work-from-home options will reduce the number of interactions that support creativity and collaboration.
But there are ways within the new normal to create connections rather than reduce them. Having different office neighbors every day will give our attorneys new opportunities for cross-selling, spark fresh ideas for managing a matter, or uncover a shared interest in volleyball.
More open workspaces for individuals and small groups will allow for more spontaneous connections. Cultivating these sorts of organic encounters will be vital to growing the firm as a business and partnership and countering the isolation of more work being done outside the office.
Matters frequently are multidimensional — one matter can involve a government investigation, a mass or class action, related insurance litigation and a related bankruptcy — and encouraging this type of cross-pollination strengthens practices and benefits clients.
But what of outside-the-office collaboration?
The hybrid environment we all face requires similar attention to making virtual interactions as valuable as possible. For example, using Zoom, we’ve instituted a number of regular small group events, including monthly lunches that randomly join five or more people — from every corner of the firm — to connect on life and legal terms.
New habits will probably be necessary to make video conferences work in a hybrid world. Freewheeling discussions can be difficult in this format, which will require more advance preparation in order to engineer greater focus and interactivity. More detailed agendas can lead to better shared discussions rather than catch-up briefings dominated by the most senior attorney.
The hybrid structure has raised two other significant considerations with respect to associates.
One, what about workflows that used to rely on walking down the hall to the partner’s office? Our approach has been to encourage junior attorneys to take ownership of projects and communicate proactively on status and potential roadblocks. Scheduling flexibility is also important, to give junior attorneys the capacity to carve out time for focused solitary work, and be available in longer, specified periods for consultations with senior partners and case teams.
Two, how can mentoring be done effectively? Hybrid obviously means fewer chances for informal one-on-one time, so those moments must be explicitly created. Senior attorneys are being asked to carve out time for younger colleagues, we are increasing formal trainings, and we are purposefully taking advantage of time windows following mediations, depositions and client meetings.
Even as law firms address these, and many other, operational challenges, larger consequences of the post-pandemic, hybrid world loom for all of us. Two in particular stand out, especially as they highlight differences between the legal world and other sectors of the business economy.
One, will our profession become more segmented? It’s clear that a hybrid working environment will create new dynamics for whom we work with and how we do our work. Law firms that place a significant emphasis on interactivity with clients may organize their new normal around in-person meetings, travel and group pitches and presentations. Others, envisioning a more analytical foundation, may instead emphasize brief writing, in-depth research and strategic planning.
Consequently, lawyers themselves may primarily find themselves in one of three places depending on the stage of their career and their function — the office (management-level partners, senior associates, junior associates), the road (lawyers primarily charged with generating business, in-person negotiations or trials) and at home (commercial litigators, partners charged with managing teams, and midlevel associates).
Second, it’s likely that generating new business also will evolve as firms move to hybrid models. Why? Because relationships are critical to new client development. If travel decreases, long-standing institutional relationships may take on even greater weight.
Conversely, a Zoom meeting with an old law school classmate may produce a new client when the practicalities of arranging a full-scale bidding process may be too onerous. If lunches and happy hours are less common, vigorous but informal telephone, email and text outreach may be necessary to cultivate new contacts and invigorate old acquaintances.
And finally, the new normal will require commitment to making virtual pitches that involve generating robust presentations with creative use of Zoom, PowerPoint and other digital tools.
As we continue the transition to a hybrid working operation, additional issues and domino effects emerge every day. More than anything, we are learning that cohesion and collaboration are essential to making both planned and unforeseen adjustments work, and that with flexibility and purposeful leadership, the new normal may actually be advantageous.
Kami Quinn is a partner and Adam Farra is an associate at Gilbert LLP.
The opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the firm, its clients, or Portfolio Media Inc., or any of its or their respective affiliates. This article is for general information purposes and is not intended to be and should not be taken as legal advice.
 See, e.g., Brian Burland, “The Pandemic’s Long-Term Impact on Law Firm Operations,” Law360 (Nov. 17, 2020); Manar Morales, “5 Steps For Law Firms Rethinking Flexible Work Post-COVID,” Law360 (May 14, 2021).
Read more at Law360.
Gilbert LLP is a Washington-based law firm specializing in litigation and strategic risk management, insurance recovery and complex dispute resolution.