Most lawyers continue to believe the myth that they must work in close physical proximity to collaborate on client matters and sustain their firm culture. But if you tell clients that your firm assembles the best team for their matters, how can you argue that the lawyers must show up in one centralized downtown office? Some colleagues–the best ones for this client’s matter—may well be in another city. As for culture, notwithstanding Woody Allen’s remark that 70 percent of life is just showing up, simply being in the same place is neither necessary nor sufficient.
This is not a push to do away with downtown central offices. Instead, firms can offer the option to work at home or in a low-cost suburban satellite office part of the week. This reduces both commuting time and the carbon load. Have lawyers come to the central office when they actually need to collaborate in person. Wow, what a concept: Scheduling time for real collaboration instead of pretending it just happens every day spontaneously. Firms that do so may even find that sharing offices downtown becomes viable, which can dramatically lower occupancy cost.
Some firms allow this flexibility already. And some start-ups are actually built on the idea of working virtually, such as the California-based Virtual Law Partners and Optim Legal in Australia.
Of course, in the current crisis, firms are shrinking, not growing. They are retaining too many lawyers, not losing enough. So the need for space or to accommodate demands for work-life balance may seem remote. Yet now is exactly the right time to make difficult changes. A firm that sets out today to optimize how and where its lawyers work and announces what it is doing publicly signals to clients and recruits that it’s in business for the long term. Most importantly, it will be better positioned for the inevitable economic turnaround.