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Negotiating Leases During the Pandemic

Nov. 12, 2021, 9:01 AM

There is nothing particularly tangible compelling a lawyer to come into an office. No exciting, cutting-edge technologies are housed there. No physical machinery or critical infrastructure that enables them to do their jobs. Instead, a firm’s culture makes all the difference. The capital is human, riding up and down the elevators each day.

Perhaps this helps explain why, even as the pandemic has shown us just how effective we can be working remotely, lawyers want to go back into the office. One survey found that just 12% want to work from home full-time once the pandemic ends.

Buchalter’s own data illustrates something similar: Our attorneys envisioned office utilization would be at 75% or more post-Covid-19—at least from Monday through Thursday. Over 90% told us they missed interacting with their team and peers.

However, translating these sentiments into a strategy for effective office spaces—particularly amid ongoing Covid-19-related uncertainty, an increasingly competitive talent market, and evolving office-work preferences—is easier said than done. Lease structures, design, and organizational culture all play a role.

As the CEO and president of a law firm who recently negotiated six new leases on the West Coast over the past 18 months, our team has navigated these challenges firsthand. Here is what we learned.

Start by Listening

If your firm’s office space is going to reflect its culture, it is imperative to understand what the people who make up that culture think about it—especially in moments of uncertainty.

At Buchalter, we engaged outside consultants to help us put together an extensive survey that asked our shareholders specific questions about their preferences for coming into an office and what they are looking for that space to provide. This data helped lay the foundation for our real estate decisions.

For instance, our attorneys’ overwhelming desire to be back in the office pushed us to expand our physical footprint rather than decrease it—and empowered us to shape these new spaces to be more collaborative (even if that meant smaller personal offices). We also broke out the data by geography to access each locale’s preference.

Design for Collaboration

With remote work proving so effective, the physical office needs to offer something the home does not—better opportunities for collaboration. At the same time, office spaces must approximate some of the benefits (well-being, flexibility, and otherwise) of working from home. We are planning to continue modernizing our space to fit the new definition of an office in a post-Covid world.

For us, that means increasing the number of outdoor (and indoor/outdoor) spaces in our offices, while opening our floor plans to facilitate collaboration. Conference rooms now have retractable walls that close off a room during a meeting, but otherwise stay open as communal space.

Glass-on-glass offices allow for natural light and a view for every office, even if it is not along the window line. Smaller offices make room for even more collaborative space, and outdoor decks and terraces not only serve as places for serious work, but for team social events—lunches, happy hours, celebrations—that form the backbone of so many organizations’ cultures.

Prioritizing a thriving company culture also comes with the responsibility of the safety of our employees. Among the numerous measures we took throughout the pandemic was adding sanitizing stations in common areas and conference rooms and thorough sanitization of our offices on a regular basis.

To ensure utmost protection, we also temporarily installed protective dividers on public areas, and all staff are encouraged to socially distance whenever possible. We also have provided long-term solutions to decrease touch points by installing no-touch options for shared appliances and other high-trafficked office areas.

There Is No One Size Fits All

For law firms with offices in multiple geographies, it is crucial to remember that each one will present different real estate challenges. Attorneys and staff in San Francisco may have a more difficult commute than those in San Diego.

Existing leases in one area might present opportunities that others do not; for example concessions such as free rent, and other tenant improvements may be offered in this changing market. Attorneys and staff in different cities will likely have preferences of their own, depending on the size of the office, demographic makeup, and any number of other factors.

Given all these variables, law firm leaders must remain open about the possibilities. Maybe that means negotiating for a new space with an existing property owner or developing new build-outs to meet evolving needs. It could even mean stepping outside your comfort zone to embrace an entirely new type of space.

In Arizona, for instance, we moved from a more traditional location to one with more of a lifestyle feel— in a neighborhood not typical for law firms—with restaurants and shops on the first floor and our office space a few floors above. While it initially felt unusual, it aligned with the types of collaborative, outdoor-focused spaces our attorneys told us they wanted.

Remember, even if our offices are changing, culture remains paramount. Retaining a similar look and feel in each office and providing routine opportunities to connect with one another (birthday and anniversary celebrations, breakfast on Fridays, end-of-the-moth lunches, holiday get-togethers, happy hours, etc.) ensures we maintain our culture.

Be Agile

Law firms do not look the way they did two years ago, and not just because there are fewer of us suiting up each day to go to the office. They are less hierarchical and more communal and focused on work-life balance and overall well-being. We believe lawyers are also social creatures. No matter how effective we are remotely, we want to interact with one another.

Amid ongoing uncertainty, now is not the time to be stagnant. Be agile—listen to employee feedback, seize opportunities that may exist in a distressed real estate market and adopt new workplace preferences. Recognize, too, that for many of us, the office is still an important part of our culture, one that lends purpose and meaning to what we do.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.

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Author Information

Adam Bass is a shareholder and CEO at Buchalter in Los Angeles. The firm has opened six new offices during his tenure. He is also chair of the firm’s Family Office & Wealth Management Practice Group and co-chair of the Social Media Influencers Industry Group.

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