Beyond Remote Work for Law Firms: The Transformation of Where (Part 2)

The cultural divide between working at the office and resting at home is relatively young.

For most of human history, people worked from home, with many companies meeting clients in luxurious homes as late as the 19th century. It’s something to keep in mind as we consider now, in the 21st century, how the office should best serve lawyers and law firms.

In Part 1 of this article, we challenged you to dream. To ask how you could create the right environment for your people to do their best work. Now it’s time to dive into some myths around how lawyers work, so you can reimagine an office that works better for you and your team.

The Myth of Collaboration

One of the most frequently cited reasons for needing everyone in the office is that it aids collaboration.

But how much collaboration do we actually do as lawyers?

PwC has a useful tool, ‘the 6 Cs’, that categorises types of work into creating, collaborating, communicating, coaching, committing, and culture/community building. Of these 6 Cs, creating (in our case, producing a work product) is usually done alone. The rest, as you’d expect, are things we do with others.

Applying this tool to legal work, what’s immediately apparent is how much work we do alone. We suspect lawyers do a lot more individual creating than many other professions. Most fee earners, particularly junior and mid-level, spend significant amounts of time drafting, researching, preparing advice, reviewing due diligence materials and so on. Only small blocks of time are spent communicating (giving status updates, getting instructions) or receiving ‘coaching’ (feedback) on that work. Even partners and senior lawyers spend lots of time on solo work, including reviewing the work of others.

But what about when multiple lawyers are working together on a single document? Isn’t that collaboration? Actually, no.

Collaboration means to make something together with someone else. It’s something that software designers do, engineers do and musicians do. But it’s not something lawyers do. We communicate and we coach, but we don’t build things together with others. While a document might be a team effort, it’s usually driven by a senior lawyer managing the individual inputs of other lawyers. Each lawyer still prepares their separate contribution alone – whether it be a single clause, an advice, or a suite of annexures. This isn’t the same thing as collaboration.

The closest lawyers come to collaboration is when we’re discussing strategy or brainstorming ways to solve a legal issue. This sort of collaboration is extremely valuable. But we’d argue it’s something that usually happens once or twice a week, or maybe a few times a month. Not daily. It’s high value but low occurrence, small but essential.

Which means we don’t actually need to force everyone into the office 5 days a week simply for lawyer collaboration. If a good chunk of legal work is creating (which happens alone), then the example of Jung’s Tower explored in Part 1 shows the ideal environment for most lawyers is quiet and controlled space. Not an open plan office (always introduced under the banner of ‘increasing collaboration’ for lawyers).

So do we really need the office at all?

There are plenty of good reasons why lawyers should come together at least some of the time. A handful of tasks require or are improved by face-to-face contact (such as giving difficult feedback). And although much of our work is individual creation, all the other Cs (collaborating, communicating, coaching, committing, and culture/community building) require teamwork and strong relationships. We think much of the anxiety around long-term remote work for lawyers is based on an implicit recognition that effective lawyering requires strong relationships. As Google’s two-year study on productive teams found, the best teams require dependability (trust), structure and clarity, meaning, impact, and psychological safety (which is a mix of trust and understanding).

Let’s look at the two relationship-based elements of these requirements:

  • Trust has two facets: whether you believe someone has good intentions, and whether you believe they have the capability to do what they say they will. We can trust in a person’s intent but not their aptitude, and we can trust in their aptitude but not their intent. We always prefer to work with people we trust in both respects, because having only one leads to problems. We might create a false deadline to manage someone we don’t trust to deliver on time. We might do extra work to make sure there is a clear paper trail if we are working with someone whose integrity we don’t trust. But working with people who tick both boxes leads to incredible work. We know we can safely delegate and trust them with clients, and we just want to keep working with them, again and again.
  • Understanding is something that grows from studying and learning who a person is and how they think and work. Understanding means we can forgive someone who is brusque, because we know that’s just how they are under a deadline. Among other things, it also means knowing how to best explain a new matter or task, or who to go to for ideas or help.

Lawyers who trust each other can ask for help and feel safe enough to admit mistakes. Lawyers with both trust and understanding know how to suggest something could be improved, when it’s a good time to have a quiet word, or whether someone might need support. This is particularly important as lawyers progress through the ranks and influence and power become increasingly political and relationship-based.

To be good at our jobs, we need to build trust and understanding with our teammates and our clients. We need to know how to effectively depend on others and get reliable outcomes. That’s why we think so many firms are afraid of what could happen if most people work from home long-term: in an office environment, relationships are built slowly over time, often through micro-interactions. Lawyers come to trust and understand their teammates (or not) based on these interactions. This also extends to building culture: as lawyers interact with other members of the firm, they begin to understand the firm’s values, and decide whether to trust the firm or their colleagues, and by how much.

When lawyers worry about not being together enough, we think what we are really worried about is losing the opportunity to develop that trust and understanding.

But Better Together does not have to mean In The Office

We strongly suspect that what’s needed to build trust and understanding is not frequent, but meaningful, interactions in person. We all have close friendships and relationships with people we don’t see often. How do we know if our interstate Nanna is feeling a bit down? Or if our boss is stressed while they’re on vacation? We know because we know what is normal for them, and we can tell from text messages, emails and their voice on the phone if something isn’t quite right.

Most of us also maintain long-term client relationships with only infrequent, but reasonably meaningful, in-person time together. For those with overseas clients, we may never even meet face-to-face. It’s been a long time since lawyers met with clients in person every time the client wanted to discuss something. Instead we supplement our electronic relationship with occasional lunches, dinners, or a chat at an event, and we all feel fairly comfortable this is enough to preserve client trust.

We can also learn from companies who have existing distributed teams. Some schedule regular in-person off-sites for teams to build and reinforce culture and relationships. In between off-sites, these teams consciously design for meaningful time together using both high and low-tech tools. They do things like recording daily or weekly videos for each other and having scheduled check-ins. There is no reason firms can’t do the same.

What does this mean for the office?

We don’t suggest firms do away with office space entirely. What we’re advocating for is a reimagination and transformation of office space. Instead of cubicle offices from the 1950s or individual offices with mahogany doors from the 1980s, we think firms should aim for a space that works hard and is designed to do the work needed in the 2020s. A place designed to strengthen in-person interactions and relationships and build the trust and understanding lawyers know they need to do their best work, but a place that acknowledges the work that lawyers actually do.

The truth is, the office has been fracturing for a long time. Open plan can destroy the intimacy needed to build trust; when 20 other people can overhear you, suddenly most of us feel a lot less like sharing (70% less like sharing, apparently). And because the current workplace isn’t structured for lawyers who work part-time or flexibly, they’re frequently left out and feeling like second class citizens.

We think firms should keep their CBD office (probably). Firms still need a place for some client meetings, partner and board meetings, and law firm events. But law firms are free to imaginatively transform the rest.

Transformation is the only way forward

As we said in Part 1, lawyers must review what we actually need from our offices. This will empower firms to cut back on expensive office space that’s not working hard enough, while freeing up and redesigning the rest to better serve clients and staff. (We are glad that some firms are moving to a 60/40 model of time in the office but we don’t think this is transformative).

Lawyers need trust and understanding to work effectively. Lawyers also need quiet spaces to create. And we think these needs can be addressed in different ways that are far more effective than the current concept of a law firm office.

A reimagined future

Firms should start by investing in better home offices for focused work, like Jung’s Tower. Firms could also create quiet dedicated working spaces in the current office or in hubs outside the CBD. We could be inspired by Rory Sutherland, the guru of populist behavioural economics, whose ideal office design features both quiet workspace wings and shared ‘noisy’ wings, like long distance train carriages. We’d also suggest a central café and kitchen, so everyone still bumps into each other in the middle.

We also love the idea of suburban hubs with a focus on community. There should be car spaces for employees but there could even be shared cars or bikes. There should be enhanced amenities that are closer to the Qantas lounge than the TigerAir economy gate. Bring back the tea lady, have an on-site café that’s free for staff and clients, make the office dog-friendly, bring back the daily towel service. You could even provide this in the CBD if office space becomes cheaper and more available. These spaces might be used more by younger lawyers living in share-houses with no home office, but since they’re the most in need of a sense of community and time with colleagues, this is a plus not a minus. If you decide to implement a mandatory weekday in the office as we mentioned in Part 1, then younger lawyers will still get to observe and work with senior lawyers from their team at least once a week and can band together with other junior lawyers from other teams the rest of the time. They also get to observe senior lawyers from other teams on other days of the week.

When you break a lawyer’s work down into the primary tasks of creating output and building and maintaining relationships, suddenly you’re only limited by imagination. If relationship-building is primarily about trust and understanding, then we should be focussed on designing meaningful and enjoyable ways of spending time together. We could take a leaf out of the Boston-based company ‘OpenExchange’ which hired an English estate for its European people to congregate in, fully catered, with families and dogs welcome. Imagine spending a few weeks with your teammates and their families at a Peppers Resort or Club Med, all needs catered for? Who needs superficial weekend chit chat when you’ve had that kind of shared experience and your kids can’t wait to see each other again? One year it could be Hawaii, another year Japan for the ski season. This would all be in budget if firms were able to cut 60% or more of their office space costs.

There are lots of options – the most important thing is to commit to the transformation.

This is our opportunity to change the way law firms look. Where they work. How they work. If we get it right, we can solve many of the problems that have plagued us for years. We can build a happy, engaged, loyal and productive workforce: working in ways that suit both them and the firm. We can shrink and redeploy space, boosting profitability while also creating new ways to work with clients.

Yes, there are risks to changing. But we’re lawyers. We only need to dedicate our considerable brain power to managing these risks and just as importantly, understanding the risks of a failure to change. We can solve our own problems, and where we can’t, we can find experts to help us. It will all be worth it if firms, lawyers, and clients alike can enjoy the right environment to do their best work and enjoy all the benefits that flow from that.
That’s why we’re putting together a whitepaper specifically for law firms: ‘Getting the Best Work from the Best People – a Self Help guide for Law firms on Managing Flexible Teams’. Sign up to our mailing list below and get a copy sent to you as soon as it drops. And stay tuned for our next piece: Securing the Future for Law Firms: The Transformation of Who.

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