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Coronavirus Is Forcing Big Law Out of Office—What They Can Learn

March 12, 2020, 8:51 AM

Welcome back to the Big Law Business column on the changing legal marketplace written by me, Roy Strom. Today we look at the concept of “forced experimentation” and ask whether law firm culture will change as lawyers alter work habits around COVID-19.

Andrew Giacomini is taking all the recommended precautions.

The managing partner at California-based Hanson Bridgett is washing his hands for as long as it takes him to twice sing—in his head—the “Happy Birthday” song. He canceled nonessential travel for the firm’s 175 lawyers. He is allowing lawyers and staff to work from home if they feel ill or have children home from school.

Employees can come to the office during non-peak hours if they want to avoid the rush on public transit. And he is considering reimbursing parking expenses for workers who’d rather not step foot on the San Francisco transit system.

But if coronavirus causes the entire firm to work remotely tomorrow, he isn’t all that worried about its impact on the firm. In a way, he’s been preparing for it. He was among the one-third of the firm’s lawyers who gave up their permanent offices 18 months ago as part of the firm’s “dynamic workforce” program.

“We’ll get through it and we’ll be better because we did it,” Giacomini said. “People will say: ‘Look, we were able to do that.’”

Big Law is in many ways defined by its space. Office leases are generally the second highest expense in a law firm budget. For partners who grew up billing 60 hours a week at their desk, the office is a second home. Associates grinding into the wee hours may prefer a different term.

That space has already been impacted at some firms by COVID-19. Faegre Drinker closed all 22 of its global offices on Tuesday after a visitor to its Washington space tested positive for the disease (as of Wednesday, offices outside the nation’s capital had reopened). Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan has its New York lawyers working from home after a partner tested positive.

Closing down a law firm office is a major business disruption. And being forced to experiment with a full office closure may lead lawyers to discover new ways of working or commuting.

Many firms have relatively new remote working programs that will be put to the test.

Morgan Lewis, for instance, installed a program in 2017 that 350 lawyers in the U.S. and UK had taken advantage of as of October. The firm did not respond to an inquiry for further details on the program.

Jim Prendergast, a principal in the Chicago office of Gensler—an international architectural and interior design firm—said law firms are already restructuring their work space to better accommodate remote work. Associates are spending more time working remotely and partners are visiting clients more often, he said. So firms are looking for ways to make the office a point of personal connection rather than just concentration on work.

“If the world pushes us apart, it means the time when we are together is more precious,” Prendergast said.

Hanson Bridgett’s approach to space is an outlier in the law firm world but it could provide some lessons for firms in a time of coronavirus.

Few firms have opted for the “hoteling” model that forces lawyers like Giacomini to reserve workstations at the office. Even secretaries and paralegals can work from home thanks to a “buddy” system that means somebody is manning their post at the office.

Giacomini said Hanson Bridgett first looked into the idea because surging housing prices around San Francisco caused lawyers and staff to move further away from the office there, leading to longer commutes. The firm found that on an average day, 38% of its lawyers’ offices were vacant. Giacomini expected that number would only rise.

So, he asked for volunteers to give up their offices as part of the “One-Third Challenge.” Lawyers were concerned. Management is coming for the desks? The program is voluntary, Giacomini reassured them. No more photos of families? Personal affects can be stored in a locker.

What about employees skipping out on work?

“There is a culture,” Giacomini said. “If you don’t see people sitting at their desk grinding away, how do you know they’re working? ‘How about we just trust them to get the job done,’ is our response.”

The firm ultimately got enough volunteers and negotiated with its landlord to give back a third of its space in San Francisco at the start of the year, saving $13 million.

When a colleague is across the hall, lawyers can take their presence for granted. But proximity can sometimes be a bad for proxy for collaboration. Giacomini said lawyers without offices made a point to spend more time together. One group that gave up offices as a unit created a standing Monday meeting to keep better informed about what was happening in their colleagues’ practices.

Temporary shocks to workers’ routines have provided unexpected benefits in the past.

Economists at the University of Cambridge and University of Oxford found that a significant number of London commuters did not return to their typical routes following a 2014 strike of the city’s light rail system. That implied they weren’t traveling the best route in the first place.

“The imposition of constraints can improve long-run efficiency, while our results also highlight the importance of implementing occasional routine breaks to explore efficiency at the margins,” the study’s authors wrote.

Giacomini did not want to minimize the threat of the coronavirus. But if his firm is forced to experiment with new ways of working for a while, he said it could have a silver lining.

“People will get sick and people will die, and that is terrible,” he said. “And we have to help make people as healthy as we can. But we have to go through it, and we will get stronger because of our efforts to get through it together.”

Worth Your Time

On Disruptions: The coronavirus caused Latham & Watkins to cancel a partner’s meeting. Harvard Law School has gone remote. Private jets are in demand from Big Law as commercial travel suffers.

On the Courts: Federal courts in Washington State are shut down while 30% of jurors in state courts there aren’t showing up. Some courts across the country are promoting remote court appearances or teleconferences, instead of in-person appearances, reports my colleague Sam Skolnik.

On Working From Home: LinkedIn has become a good source of information for novices to remote working. Justin North of consultancy Janders Dean promotes “virtual tea breaks” by using Skype to talk with coworkers. The managing partner of virtual law firm FisherBroyles promoted his model’s familiarity with remote working.

On Big Law Moves: The pandemic hasn’t stopped lawyers from making career moves. Latham & Watkins recruited two Kirkland & Ellis private equity partners. Boies Schiller Flexner saw lawyers depart for Vinson & Elkins, Jenner & Block, and Validity Finance. And Crowell & Moring hired the former chief deputy AG for the District of Columbia.

That’s it for this week. Thanks for reading and please send me your thoughts, critiques, and tips.

To contact the reporter on this story: Roy Strom in Chicago at rstrom@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Jessie Kokrda Kamens at jkamens@bloomberglaw.com; Rebekah Mintzer at rmintzer@bloomberglaw.com; Andrew Harris at aharris@bloomberglaw.com

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