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How a Big Law Firm Is Tackling Real Estate Realities in a Pandemic

Oct. 21, 2020, 8:01 AM

Change. It is the one thing that is constant. This is a phrase we hear often from Ron Schutz, chair of our board. Never is there a year more appropriate for this quip. We are navigating a global pandemic, economic crisis, and in the city of our firm’s inception—Minneapolis—a degree of social unrest and violence many of us have not witnessed in our lifetimes.

The most obvious change is where and how we work. With all of the upheaval, a lively debate is emerging. For example, in May, Jack Dorsey of Twitter said employees can work from home “forever,” while in September, Reed Hastings of Netflix said working from home “is a pure negative.”

At Robins Kaplan, we are seven months into operating in a mostly remote environment. The remote-work genie is out of the bottle, and we acknowledge we will never put it back and go back to how and where we worked prior to Covid-19. Our firm—like so many businesses around the country—is now faced with questions about what our workplace will look like in the future.

Tackling WFH Real Estate Realities

What are the primary factors that should inform strategies to accommodate this radical shift? And how can we develop a new strategy that optimizes expenses while maintaining an engaged, productive, and happy workforce?

Below are some recommendations on how to tackle these big questions.

Engage Talent

Before making any long-term changes to where and how employees work, seek the input of those most impacted. At Robins Kaplan, we have started rolling out surveys to each of our offices around the country, asking questions like: How many days do you want to be in the office? If remote, how do you feel about not having a permanently assigned office? How does being in the office affect your well-being?

Know the Life Cycle of Your Physical Real Estate

Consider conducting a full 360-degree evaluation of office lease obligations. We are mapping when our leases expire and triaging where we can begin to re-imagine how and where we work in the future.

In New York, prior to the pandemic, we were actively assessing new office space. We have already decided, based on feedback from our partners, attorneys, and staff that we will not need the larger footprint we considered prior to Covid-19.

For our longer-term lease obligations, we are reviewing lease language and exercising options presciently negotiated pre-Covid, which will enable us to strategically reduce our footprint.

Engage Brokers and Architects Early

When considering a reimagined work environment, consult with real estate brokers and architects. They can serve as key partners in visioning what a post-pandemic office space will look like, from determining the framework of a hybrid remote-work model, to designing “hoteling” office space, to assessing the perfect footprint, should remote-work policies be embraced.

Engage a Full Spectrum of Firm Leadership

Not only is it important to listen to the voices of attorneys and staff, but it is also imperative to engage your firm’s next generation of leadership. These are the future leaders who will be living the consequences of today’s decisions in 10-20 years.

For this reason, we have created a space committee comprised of both board members and a diverse array of attorneys new to the partner ranks to help guide our information gathering and direction.

Tackle Technology

Technology continues to be a major factor in the design of offices of the future. Seamless transition and interoperability from home and office is critical.

Mark Bradley, our chief innovation and technology officer, is collaborating with our space committee to design co-working spaces along with Zoom-Integrated conference rooms that seamlessly connect our in-office and remote workers to our clients.

As a litigation firm, we are also creating a “virtual courtroom” experience to accommodate new requirements in our court system dockets that allow litigants to participate remotely.

Finally, our team continues strategic initiatives to run more applications from the cloud, reducing our reliance upon on-premise and remote-server infrastructure.

Formalize a Remote Work Policy

Finally, it is essential to adopt a formal remote-work policy. Firms should leverage current successes and challenges to develop clear standards to serve as a guide for employees, leadership, and clients.

A policy should address big-picture issues, such as the process for requesting a flexible arrangement, expectations for employee availability and responsiveness, and compliance with wage and hour laws. Firms should also consider what training and other resources are needed to support teams with remote workers, and build in a process for periodic review of the policy so you can assess and iterate as needed.

Finding the right solution will be as individual and unique as each firm itself. Flexibility will be key to any firm’s resilience as we all continue to learn how our employees, and real estate, can best serve our diverse and evolving client needs. Change will undoubtedly remain constant.

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

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Author Information

Shonette Gaston is chief operating officer at Robins Kaplan and oversees the business management and daily operations of eight offices with over 250 attorneys across the country. She is a strategic partner with the firm’s executive board and works closely with senior leadership and department chairs, advising on the constantly evolving legal market and the firm’s continued growth.

Dr. Shelley Gilliss is Robins Kaplan’s chief business intelligence officer and leads diverse, cross-disciplinary teams that complement the firm’s litigation services. Her teams are experts in eDiscovery, business intelligence, and include specialized consultants with expertise in science and technology, as well as finance, accounting and economics.

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