Law Firms Are Headed To Hybrid Office, Remote Work Future

As the COVID-19 vaccines roll out across the country, many law firm leaders have begun to plot their office returns. But with lawyers and staff now used to the benefits of working from home, many firms are considering a long-term shift to a hybrid model that allows for both in-office and remote work.

U.K. law firms seem to be leading the way, with Linklaters LLP last summer announcing a new global "agile working policy" to allow employees to work remotely up to half of the time. Others that have made similar moves included Norton Rose Fulbright, Taylor Wessing LLP, Herbert Smith Freehills LLP, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer LLP and Allen & Overy LLP.

Taylor Wessing and Freshfields have only implemented the policy for their U.K. workforces. Few U.S. firms have done the same, and those that have are experimenting in their offices abroad first. Squire Patton Boggs LLP implemented a six-month trial to allow its U.K. employees to work remotely up to half of the time. DLA Piper, meanwhile, drew up a plan to allow all its people outside the U.S., including partners, to work two days a week from home.

The hybrid plan implemented in the U.K. does offer a framework for the U.S. offices. Bob Bratt, DLA Piper's chief operating officer, told Law360 Pulse in a statement his firm is still evaluating and drafting policy for its U.S. employees. "It will give both our attorneys and staff some flexibility regarding remote working," he said.

Meanwhile, Allen & Overy has applied its new hybrid work policy to all of its attorneys and staff worldwide.

"Watching the firm move to entirely virtual working almost overnight with really not a lot of advance warning and preparation time, I think it's surprised everybody how smoothly that went," Allen & Overy U.S. Senior Partner Tim House told Law360 Pulse.

"It's caused us over the whole period to really reflect on what is the best way to have people combined together in order to continue to serve the client's needs," House said. "And no client has shown any concern about the service levels."

Like many other firms, House said Allen & Overy conducted surveys asking how their employees would like to work in the future, how they managed the remote working environment, and other questions on concerns such as wellness, mental health and technological support for home offices.

As a result, the firm concluded that "a good balance" would be allowing its attorneys and staff to work remotely 40% of the time while expecting 60% of work to be done in its own or others' offices on average.

"Now that doesn't translate automatically to everybody going to spend 'three days in the office and two days at home' on some sort of regular organized basis," House added. "It's more to say 'look, we're trusting each of you to perform the role that's required of you and to provide the client service that our clients expect, but we're not dictating where you do it or when you are in the office.'"

According to House, the changes would help individuals reduce commute costs and allow the firm to rethink its physical footprint once they reopen its offices.

House said the firm's decision to move to a hybrid model is not driven by incentives to reduce office expense. "But adopting the hybrid models for different reasons leads to the conclusion that we will need less space," he said. "Less space obviously is less costly."

Who Gets a Desk?

Philadelphia-based Weber Gallagher Simpson Stapleton Fires & Newby LLP will also implement a hybrid work model when its attorneys and staff are returned to the offices, but unlike some other firms, they will not have designated offices.

"I'd be guesstimating, but somewhere around 50% do not have a dedicated office at this point," Weber Gallagher managing partner Andy Indeck said. "This has been an evolving program for us as the years have gone on."

In the future, some firm employees will need to log onto an online portal to reserve their workspace, an arrangement known as hoteling. According to Indeck, such de-emphasizing of personal office space would help the firm reduce about 50% of its real estate footprint, leading to a 10% reduction in overhead.

"Our leased space is our number two expense for the firm after payroll, and an opportunity to reduce overhead presented itself, so we took advantage of it," Indeck said.

According to a February report released by real estate services provider Savills PLC, law firms using more than 20,000 square feet leased a total of 5.4 million square feet across major U.S. markets in 2020, down 37% from 2019.

As more people are vaccinated, law firm management consultant Kent Zimmermann of the Zeughauser Group said he expects more firms will ask their employees to be in the office or develop policies about how much people need to be in the office.

"Just like with the bonuses, a lot of firms are looking at what their peers are doing," Zimmermann said. "Law firms are famous for having a pack mentality and following the lead of firms they respect."

Remote Hirings

Another benefit of offering a hybrid model is that it allows the firm to recruit "from a much larger geographic area," Indeck said, adding that Weber Gallagher has expanded its recruitment to attorneys in locations where they don't even have an office.

"It has become a major advantage for us to be able to recruit a much more broad and diverse workforce geographically and in every other way than we otherwise would have," he said.

Similarly, Goodwin Procter LLP confirmed that it is now hiring associates to work remotely in cities across the U.S. on a permanent basis. The Boston-based firm said it had not finalized its remote working policies, but a source close to the firm said it is also considering a hybrid model, including partial remote options.

"With our activity at an all-time high, [we are] trying to get creative in ways that we can attract folks to Goodwin," said Ashley Nelson, managing director in Goodwin's legal recruitment department. "And recognizing that there are very talented lawyers in other markets and we're very excited to be tapping into those markets and find this great talent."

According to Nelson, Goodwin has hired lawyers in cities including Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, Miami, Philadelphia, Hartford, Connecticut, Richmond, Virginia, and Charlotte, North Carolina. It's also looking for lawyers living in Chicago, Seattle, Maryland, New Jersey, Raleigh, North Carolina, and Nashville, Tennessee.

Thus far, most remote hires are mid- to senior-level associates, according to Heidi Goldstein Shepherd, Goodwin's chief talent officer. Since the pandemic, Goodwin has transitioned all of its learning and professional development programs to be virtual, but Shepherd said she expects new associates to visit the office around six or seven times a year.

--Additional reporting by Emma Cueto. Editing by Brian Baresch and Orlando Lorenzo.


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