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Rethinking the Office: Three Questions About the Legal Workplace

By Dan Packel for

As we approach the one-year anniversary of when we packed our laptops up, watered our plants one last time, and said goodbye to the office for an indefinite hiatus that no one anticipated would last this long, it finally feels like the finish line is in sight.

The administration of vaccines is steadily accelerating, and a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention projection has half of the total U.S. population at least partially vaccinated around early July, and nearly all around late November.

But that good news doesn’t obviate several huge questions law firm leaders are facing:

  • When is it realistic to expect a widespread return to the office?
  • How can they continue to preserve their firm’s culture and client ties as the “social distancing” era strides past the one-year mark?
  • What does the “new normal” look like once it’s safe to return?

Baker & Hostetler chairman Paul Schmidt reflected a growing consensus when answering the first question in a conversation Wednesday: “I’m very, very hopeful that we get back sooner rather than later. Whether that’s any time before the summer, it’s hard to imagine for me at this point.”

Firms with a national footprint (let’s push aside international issues for now) face a complex set of considerations here. Is there any point in crafting a firmwide return strategy when so much depends on local considerations: vaccine rates, local and state regulations, and even whether people drive or rely on public transportation to get to the office?

And even a midsummer return presents certain challenges: Stephen Zubiago, Nixon Peabody’s managing partner and and CEO, told me earlier this month that the firm is worried about inconveniencing parents with a full-scale opening during students’ summer vacations.

At the same time, there’s also a sense that continued physical separation will impose growing costs on a firm’s culture. In some places, experiencing events together, even virtually, has helped forestall this in the short run. Cooley CEO Joe Conroy last week credited the firm’s culture for a 2020 financial performance that shattered firm records and said that pressures of the year, from the pandemic to the racial justice protests of last summer, only served to sow greater trust and comfort among personnel.

“Culture is a living breathing organism; it evolves and it takes attention. It’s a priority to defend our culture: when you grow and you get bigger and more far flung, we have to get more active in our defense,” he told me. “This last year it’s been the hardest to maintain that. But the limitations of technology notwithstanding, in many respects, we feel closer.”

I’m hearing similar things about client relationships: that connecting through video conferencing from one’s sofa when a cat wanders into the frame does help to deepen existing connections. But it also feels like it’s harder to build new ties, whether to potential clients or newly arrived laterals, this way.

“We’re in a business where trust is everything. Being with people and spending time together is a way to develop trust,” Schmidt said, noting that he’s ready for it to be safe to start spending the firm’s money on client events and partner retreats again.

If my first two questions will likely be solved by the end of 2021, no one’s expecting a quick answer to the final one. And because real estate has historically been the second biggest line item on a firm’s budget, the stakes here are highest. It’s clear that many firms are looking to reduce their footprint, with the “stigma of remote work gone forever,” as Schmidt told me.

Even with it increasingly apparent that few lawyers (and even fewer staff) will want to be in the office five days a week, there are no easy solutions to how young lawyers are going to be mentored. And just as leaders have talked about the need to be more intentional than ever about fostering “culture” in the Zoom era, they’re not going to be able to flip that switch when COVID ceases to be a threat. It’s going to take more energy and commitment than ever before.