What a Difference a (Pandemic) Year Makes: Returning to a Changed Law Office
by Ken Neal
June 7, 2021
Law firms, like all U.S. businesses, continue to wrestle with the question of how to reopen their offices for their workforce — and how to balance in-person and remote work. The pandemic spurred progress for many of those firms by forcing them to make dramatic changes to increase the mobility, flexibility, and resilience of their workforce. At the same time, the pandemic created challenges for an industry that thrives on person-to-person collaboration.
As society begins to turn a corner on the virus, the legal industry must find a way to capture the benefits of its journey without sacrificing the aspects of work that have always set the best firms apart. Threading this needle requires a new outlook, the right technology and guidance to set up firms for continued success.
After weathering unprecedented disruption, there’s no consensus among major law firms over when or if they will require a full return to the office. Law.com reported a range of approaches: Nixon Peabody planned for a return as early as July 2021, while other firms such as Willkie Farr & Gallagher have postponed their returns or have not defined their reopening timelines.
What most firms do agree on is that the future will feature some combination of in-person and remote work. Legal teams have shown tremendous adaptability and remained highly productive in remote settings, and many intend to include remote work as a permanent option. At the same time, according to Above the Law, leading firms such as Ropes & Gray view a return to the office as essential to providing a stability and consistency that may be missing for their employees.
This range of approaches proves that there is no “right” way to think about your return to the office. Instead, it illustrates the need to transform your approach to incorporate more agility, find the right technology to support multiple styles of work, and identify the right partner to analyze and fill any gaps that arise as you adapt.
While a balance between in-person and remote work may be a necessity for many firms, the legal industry has recognized the benefits of a strong office foundation. For starters, there is the bottom-line cost: Paying for unused office space is expensive and unsustainable. According to The New York Times, security company Kastle Systems estimated that only a quarter of the U.S. workforce had returned by March 2021 — leaving 75% of office space underutilized.
Beyond this cost, managing partners view a firm’s culture as a critical component to in-person collaboration. The heart and soul of the law firm, culture has been difficult to nurture outside of the office. For example, an April 2021 Gensler study of the U.S. workforce4 found that only 43% of high-potential employees were engaged in mentorship or coaching during the pandemic. A significant percentage of this future generation of leaders is missing out on critical development opportunities, not to mention reduced exposure to diverse perspectives.
Gensler also cited the toll that remote work has taken on another aspect of culture: the informal modes of communication that are so essential to a thriving law firm. The chance encounters and impromptu conversations that provide incalculable value that a virtual setting lacks. Finally, Gensler also found that those working from home feel out of the loop on critical business updates and connections compared with their in-office peers.
A mixture of virtual and in-person is a necessity, and tools exist to support it. Technology remains a critical part of work-style strategy, but you’ll need to supplement it with opportunities for in-person engagement. That means leveraging the right technology in the right ways. You’ll also need to balance tools with a physical workspace that is optimized to drive meaningful connection and collaboration.
With varied opportunities and risks to weigh, many law firms are choosing to eliminate uncertainty by defining a new form of work: a hybrid workplace that incorporates the best of the in-person office with the benefits and technology of remote work. Law.com5 reports that firms such as Perkins Coie are taking advantage of the moment to reduce their total office footprint by 24%. That commitment, however, demands a high level of strategic clarity that is difficult to achieve without proper support.
“At the heart of this major transformation is how well firm leaders leverage digitization and automation while trying to establish new ways of working. At the same time, they need to balance competing desires for culture, collaboration, and flexibility,” says Shannon Desmarais, national manager for legal solutions for Canon Business Process Services.
That’s where the right managed services partner can make an enormous impact. The best hybrid offices rely on a services support team, automated workflows, and technology to empower varied forms of work. This technology could include mobile applications for submitting and tracking work-related requests or monitoring business documents anywhere across the workflow, as well as digitalization capabilities.
For example, a digitalization service such as Canon’s Digital Intake Center helps law firms digitize documents, giving you secure access to information in any work environment. This also drives faster, error-free delivery, which can have a huge impact on your clients and increases opportunities to automate rote tasks that are more difficult to execute in a hybrid context.
Legal firms are at a crossroads, where they face business challenges that are evolving — and will continue to change. Adopting a hybrid office strategy enables firms to navigate these changes and position themselves with the right technological tools for sustaining long-term success. Canon can help you achieve these goals, starting with a roadmap for your firm’s return to work. Working together, we can advance safety and workplace experience services to create an efficient, positive office environment for your attorneys, legal staff, guests, and clients.