While lawyers and support staff are still mostly working from home, management teams are making plans to reopen law offices. But what will life at the office look like, both immediately and further into the future?
“Change is definitely afoot,” says Mia Hempey, the chief executive officer of Nelligan Law in Ottawa.
Law firms are notoriously traditional, but the pandemic has been an opportunity for them to push significant changes. “It is an exciting time for people who enjoy creating and building something new,” she says. “We’re not going back to the way it was.”
Hempey is still awaiting feedback from lawyers, support staff and clients, before she can start implementing changes. In the meantime, there are three areas where she expects things to be different.
The pandemic has created many workplace safety issues, so it can be difficult to find agreement—even from the experts—on how things should proceed. To put workers at ease, they will need a combination of more space, more cleaning and stricter sick policies.
Office space is being reconfigured to conform to social distancing guidelines and will have plexiglass in place for receptionists. According to Hempey, only three of her firm’s six boardrooms are open, they will likely shut down the lunchroom in the short term and greet returning lawyers and support staff with a welcome-back package of masks and hand sanitizers. The building’s management mandates wearing masks on the elevators, with a limited number of people allowed in each elevator.
Hempey says that firms will create a more personalized work environment, allowing people to work from home or in an office. Physical offices will continue to exist, but she foresees that many firms will eventually renew leases for less square footage.
“This is going to make law firms more efficient. I hope it makes us a little more agile and more innovative.”
Flexibility is paramount
The pandemic has shown that firms can quickly adapt to “circumstances that lawyers wouldn’t have even been able to imagine three or four months ago,” says Dan Bokenfohr, a labour and employment partner at McLennan Ross in Edmonton. “The configuration of a law firm and how we’re set up, that’s going to be something that’s going to continue to evolve.”
“Flexibility is probably a good thing for the profession at the end of the day,” he says. In the long term, there ought to be more willingness to be more accommodating to individual circumstances. Once firms get past an adjustment period, “we’ll see that we’ve advanced further along the scale of what would have been the ordinary pace of change,” says Bokenfohr.
Hempey says her firm will provide a lot more flexibility for everyone who works there.
“One of the changes coming is making work-from-home a more inclusive and equitable benefit across all members of the firm. Gone are the days when we can say that clerks and assistants cannot work from home. They have proven that they can, and quite successfully,” she says.
There is a also talent retention element to consider given the high number of young women who leave the profession. “Allowing more flexibility for lawyers with young families might be another benefit derived from a more robust WFH policy,” Hempey says.
The office: a social network
Overwhelmingly, lawyers want to return to the office at least part of the time, according to a recent American work-from-home survey by design and architecture firm Gensler. Meeting and connecting with colleagues are the top reasons given for wanting to be in the office.
“We’re seeing that only 12 per cent of the general population wants to work from home all the time,” says Matthew Kobylar, a design director at Gensler in Toronto. For lawyers, that number is even smaller. “About 10 per cent really want to work from home all the time and the majority, 76 per cent, want to go back to the office.”
That’s not surprising, since law firms provide spaces to help lawyers connect with each other and their clients. “The change we see is that law firms are going to really start to use space to be more about culture, networking, and bringing the knowledge sharing together, rather than necessarily individual spaces for focused work,” says Kobylar.
Post-pandemic, people expect to return to a different workplace, according to the Gensler survey. The most critical issues are stricter policies about staying home when sick and more opportunities to work from home, followed by cleaning and other efforts to establish social distancing.
Many lawyers have found that they are more productive at home. This is true of older generations, in particular, but Kobylar says younger people are often less productive and less sure about their roles. “They’re used to getting a bit more interaction and may not be able to get all of their questions answered. They may also not feel very comfortable reaching out to their boss virtually.”
Regardless, for many law firms, “it was a revelation rather than a revolution that they could survive working from home,” Kobylar says. Going forward, he says lawyers will likely do more focused work at home, then go to the office to socialize, network, mentor people face to face and be part of the firm’s community.
Firms are coming to realize now that 225-square-foot offices are not necessary when they can get by with 100 to 120 square feet, “so why don’t we spend space differently?”
The COVID-19 crisis can be the catalyst required for meaningful change in the legal industry. How space issues and HR policies evolve going forward is uncharted territory, says Hempey. But firms that are agile, creative, and openly communicate with employees and clients about their preferences, will thrive.
“Holding on to old traditions and being resistant to change are hallmarks of law firms of the past,” she says. “Now is the time to adapt and make the necessary changes to an outdated business model. The winners in the post-COVID economy will be those who see the crisis as an opportunity for systematic change.”
For additional resources on office re-opening, read Returning to the office: Considerations for law firms.