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The Future of the Big Law Office Is Now, Thanks to Covid-19

June 1, 2021, 10:01 AM

Many of the attorneys making their way back to Perkins Coie’s Seattle office will reconnect with colleagues in person for the first time in a long time, with some sharing workspace more than ever before.

The firm, which is set to welcome lawyers back to offices by Oct. 1 in a hybrid arrangement that includes some remote work, is cutting more than 70,000 square feet of space—or around 25 tennis courts—across four of its offices. As part of the move, it’s getting rid of some assigned seating in certain offices, encouraging a “hoteling” setup, where individuals book desks as needed, and implementing office sharing, in which lawyers with work schedules that don’t overlap use the same workspace.

“What we’re calling it is flexiblity within a framework,” Tammy Baldwin, the firm’s Portland, Ore.-based chief of business operations, said in an interview.

In Seattle, Perkins Coie launched the first of several office revamps in January 2020, but the shift to remote work due to the pandemic gave changes planned across the firm new momentum. Big Law firms preparing to bring lawyers back after more than a year of working from home have had to get creative about how they design offices and use space in the long term, a shift from their historically staid attitudes about their workplaces.

“They’re not used to much change—maybe they change the carpet—a big transformation for law firms was putting a glass front on their private office,” said John Hopkins, a design director at IA Interior Architects in Chicago. “For every other industry, glass fronts have been there for 20-plus years.”

Downsized and Shared

Covid-19 has prompted some firms to rethink their use of space from the get-go.

Hopkins said one large international law firm he is working with on a new Chicago office saw the pandemic hit as “the ink was just drying” on its signed lease. The firm originally planned to downsize its offices just a bit, but cutting back became a bigger conversation of the sort Hopkins said he’s not used to having with law firms.

“‘We hear about what these tech firms do with their hoteling and their benching,’” he recalled the firm saying. “‘What are these things? Can you educate us and pitch us some ideas?’”

The firm settled on an approach that has uses a bit of hoteling along with “co-working zones” where lawyers and staff can work in an open area but still maintain privacy.

The plan also included hedges against risk: the co-working zones are structured so that they can be readily converted into more traditional offices, if needed. The firm is also poised to sublease some of the space it’s saving through its new office setup, but can easily knock down a wall to reclaim it if it later needs the square footage back.

Law has long been an office-oriented profession, with real estate regularly the No. 2 cost after personnel.

Many firms shifted before the pandemic toward one-size offices for lawyers, eliminating corner offices for the sake of cost-savings. But asking lawyers to give up their spaces in exchange for flexible arrangements has been rare.

“Any change is going to have some resistance,” said Baldwin, who said Perkins Coie undertook months-long consultative processes for its office redesigns involving surveys, focus groups, individual meetings, and a firm change management expert.

She emphasized education to dispel myths around new office setups and emphasized that there are solutions for the 5 or 10% of the firm’s lawyers that expressed some concern about the changes. These include “reverse hoteling,” in which an office user’s workspace becomes available to book during periods of overflow when the the person is out.

Technology Updates

Many Big Law firms are reconsidering the technological aspects of their physical offices as well, in an environment where being “at work” can easily mean being at home, and business travel has declined.

“Telepresence rooms,” for instance, have become more popular in offices. Advanced audio-visual systems and large, mirror-like screens are used to make it appear that a client or colleague is in the same physical conference room, even if the person is at the other end of the globe.

Barbara Dunn, a principal and studio director at design firm Gensler in Los Angeles, said that in the last few weeks alone she has heard from three law firms looking to upgrade their tech ecosystems to make it simpler for attorneys to meet with clients virtually and “put virtual attendees on the same footing as in-person attendees.”

“These firms want technology that bridges on-site and remote teams and are expanding into a broader set of tools to better address what employees need to move seamlessly between home and office environments,” she said.

Law firms are also shoring up their IT infrastructures now that a lawyer can’t simply count on their colleague down the hall to answer to a question, or the filing cabinet with a particular document being nearby.

Ralph Baxter, an advisor to law firms and former chairman and CEO of Orrick Herrington & Sutcliffe, said firms “have enormous reservoirs of experience and knowledge” that are captured digitally but mostly exist in “information silos,” since data is collected for different purposes across the firm but often isn’t usable broadly.

“One of the most important things law firms need to do and the most clever firms are doing it now, will be to spend the time and money to break down those silos and get all that information on the same taxonomy and the same architecture that can be used by anyone for any purpose who’s authorized to delve into this,” he said.

Future ‘Destination’

With office presence closer to “optional” than ever, firms are finding themselves thinking of space a bit more like tech companies do.

Beer taps and foosball tables are not likely to appear in Big Law offices anytime soon, but those involved in firm design and operations said that the need for communal spaces where people can experience benefits of in-person connection, in a Covid safe manner, has grown.

“It does seem the office is going to increasingly be a place of collaboration, as opposed to heads-down work,” Dunn said.

The office needs to provide benefits lawyers and staff can’t get at home, according to Dunn.

“At the same time, this needs to be blending of home and office, things becoming less corporate in feeling, less sterile,” she said. “We’re doing a lot of spaces now that have comfortable furniture, inviting, like a club feeling to it, or a communal workspace type feel.”

Perkins Coie has integrated the idea of adding amenities into its plan for several offices, which include a room for nursing mothers, a prayer room, and a “respite room,” a private space where employees can take a break.

Baldwin said the firm’s attitude is, “Let’s make the office a destination.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Rebekah Mintzer in New York at rmintzer@bloomberglaw.com
To contact the editor on this story: Chris Opfer in New York at copfer@bloomberglaw.com

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