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The Future Law Office: Going Virtual

This article first appeared in the Jan/Feb 2004 issue of Law Practice magazine.  A condensed version appeared in the “The Best Articles Published by the ABA” issue of GPSolo, September 2004. Periodic updates and comments at Strategic Legal Technology blog.

ABSTRACT:  Where are you working? Technology has forever changed the way we practice law. Perhaps now is the time to experiment with where we practice as well.

 

Lawyers usually think that all the trappings of traditional firm office space are essential to practicing law and serving clients. This certainly seemed true in the past, and maybe it is still true. But maybe not. Think of all the tools and resources for going virtual that are at our disposal today. We know how they enable us to do our work when we are on the road. What about when we are off the road?

Isn’t it time to question assumptions about the need for lawyers to work from the firm’s central offices? Moving toward more work from home offices and other alternative spaces could mean dollars in the pocket, increased efficiencies and more time to relax.

The Three Cs that Explain the Value of Office Space

Historically, traditional law firm office space has seemed essential because of the “three Cs”: core services, collaboration and control.

Core services means the resources that individual lawyers need to deliver their services to clients. This includes individual office space with furnishings, someplace where the lawyer can read, write, analyze and store all the documents that every lawyer consumes and creates. Core services also include the range of equipment that lawyers need to “produce” their work: computers, copiers, fax machines, sophisticated phones and the like. Also, producing the work typically requires staff to help and they, too, need space in which to work. In addition, once a firm has more than a few lawyers, it may also provide other core services such as a library, mail room, photocopying center and high-speed Internet services.

The second C is collaboration. While lawyers may spend many hours working in solitude, ultimately, the practice of law involves people. Consequently, lawyers need nice office space so they can collaborate with colleagues, meet with clients and negotiate with opposing counsel. Even ignoring the human impulse to socialize over the proverbial watercooler, meetings with real business purposes occur regularly. And meetings require comfortable space in which groups of people can work together.

The third C, control, relates to interactions of another kind. In the traditional models of both blue-collar and white-collar work, managers and supervisors must be physically near workers to make sure that people do whatever it is they should be doing. At least some lawyers appear to take comfort in knowing that they can walk around their firm and observe their peers, juniors and staff busily at work.

The Demise of the Three Cs

A “before and after” portrait of the office of today compared to 20 years ago would be striking: PCs, sophisticated telephony systems, fax machines and the Internet have fully penetrated even the smallest of law offices. Combining the new technologies with other factors means that the three Cs are much less important today than even a few years ago.

The question of core services. Access to core services no longer requires space in a traditional office building. For an increasing number of professionals—including lawyers—it may require no more than a spare room at home. An empty room alone, however, does not an office make. Not long ago, buying the furniture and equipment to convert an empty room into an office would have been beyond the means of all but a handful. Today, though, “big box” stores such as Staples, Office Depot, Best Buy and Costco make buying office equipment (such as a PC, printer, fax machine and copier) and furniture affordable. And a high-speed residential Internet connection will hardly break the bank, either. Between affordable equipment and an Internet connection, that extra room now has many of the capabilities of a traditional, downtown, high-rent office.

Granted, a few core services, like high-speed copying and binding, are still expensive to replicate at home. For these, companies such as Kinko’s provide an easy solution.

Collaboration solutions. The second C—collaboration—is a just a bit dicier. Although there is no true substitute for face-to-face meetings, collaboration is increasingly easy from a home office. For one thing, sharing computer files is easy. Solo practitioners and small law offices can use products such as GoToMyPC to access remote computers or Web-based services for sharing files. Larger firms can use products such as Citrix Metaframe and virtual private networks to access the central servers they typically use to store all work product.In addition, communication by voice or e-mail from home is no harder than from a traditional office. Most small and large office e-mail systems allow access from any PC with an Internet connection. For voice, an extra phone line at home typically suffices. An even better option is rapidly emerging: Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), which allows voice calls to be routed over the Internet. VoIP phones can easily be forwarded so that clients and colleagues have no idea where the call is actually being received. Moreover, a home PC can control VoIP phones and provide the more sophisticated features of central exchanges, such as, for example, conference calling and call forwarding.

For face-to-face communication, videoconferencing is a reasonable option. Although desktop computer video has its limitations, it is easy, relatively inexpensive and rapidly improving in quality. For jointly viewing or editing documents over a distance, there are many options. Webconferencing software, including WebEx, LiveMeeting and Lotus Sametime, allow sharing the desktop and applications. Other products, such as Viack’s VIA3, allow sharing documents and a video connection on the same screen. For those instances when sharing paper is essential, there is always that old standby, the fax machine—or, better yet, scanning and sending images by e-mail (or via a shared file system).

The control factor. The third C—control—is a red herring. Lawyers are, by definition, professionals. Although they do need to be managed, they do not need to be supervised and controlled by physical observation. A lawyer who objects to a colleague working away from a central office because the colleague might not really be working should really worry about a more basic problem. Lawyers are obliged to bill their time accurately; an unethical lawyer can pad hours as easily in the office as at home. The answer to this concern is not control by observation. The answer is to find a new colleague.

The Next Way: Mixing It Up for Firms of Every Size

Without the constraints of the three Cs, we are free to think about new working arrangements. What might this “next way” look like? For various reasons (discussed in the next section), a true virtual office—meaning an organization without central facilities, where everyone works at home—is not realistic. The next way is more likely to involve a mixed arrangement.

Lawyers could work at home many days and, when they come to the firm’s offices, focus on those activities unique to central offices, such as attending in-person meetings or accessing core services or staff not available elsewhere. For larger firms, the next way might also include heavy use of low-overhead, limited-amenity suburban “satellite” offices that offer the three Cs at much lower cost than downtown space. For small firms and solos, it might mean heavier reliance on companies such as Regus that lease high-quality office space on a shared or as-needed basis or on clubs that rent nice conference rooms as needed.

The benefit of the next way for firms small and large is a significant reduction in the amount of expensive office space they need. This is not to say firms could eliminate central, downtown offices altogether. Rather, they could consider smaller lawyer offices, office shares and even hoteling (a system in which offices are not assigned to individuals but rather are used on an as-needed basis). Office shares could be implemented quickly. Creating smaller offices or switching to hoteling would require waiting until a move, a build out of new space or a big renovation.

The next way would also benefit lawyers by eliminating long commutes. Lawyers who avoid nonproductive commutes by working at home or in nearby suburban satellite offices would either have a higher quality of life or be able to bill more hours. Further, working at home some days would help lawyers with caregiving obligations to more easily juggle work and personal obligations.

Of course, some lawyers would resent any downsizing of their office, either for practical or for status reasons. Others might find it distracting to listen to office- or hotel-mates on the phone. (But let’s not forget that much of corporate America works in cubicles or open offices.) And many might miss day-to-day social interactions. A simple solution to these concerns is to make the next way an option rather than a requirement and allow individual lawyers to make the trade-offs required.

Will the Next Way Work?

Commentators have promoted the so-called virtual office for many years. The obvious question is: Would the next way work? It seems likely to for five reasons.

First, many traditional offices, especially in larger law firms, create barriers to face-to-face collaboration. Even if all the floors of a large law office are on the same elevator bank, it can be very time-consuming to visit lawyers on other floors. If getting to some of those floors requires going to the lobby to switch elevator banks, the psychic barrier to visiting goes way up. Moreover, the value of spontaneous interactions is questionable in offices of hundreds of lawyers. Once an office has more than some critical number of lawyers, it’s hard to recognize, much less know, everyone else.

Most law firms with multiple offices face another barrier to in-person collaboration. If the multiple offices really act as a single firm— actively cross-selling services and staffing matters based on expertise and availability rather than geography— then the physical location of lawyers should not matter. Once a colleague is not in the same physical office, the technologies discussed earlier mean that it should make no difference whether that colleague works from home or a different office. As a marketing matter, multioffice firms that advertise their “one firm” culture will find it hard to argue that daily presence in a local office is essential.

Second, many professional services organizations, particularly the Big Four accounting firms and some management consultancies, successfully use hoteling. Granted, in these businesses the professionals spend more time at clients’ offices than at their own firms’ offices. But this demonstrates that a firm can operate effectively even though its professionals are widely dispersed.

Third, a few large law firms have already demonstrated that lawyers and staff need not work in the same location. Orrick Herrington has consolidated many technology, finance and other functions in a West Virginia office detached from all lawyers. Baker & McKenzie has moved several technology functions, including the help desk, which deals directly with lawyers, from the United States to service centers in Asia. And Allen & Overy has relocated a significant portion of its document production function from London to India.

It’s one thing to move staff off-site. It’s another to move lawyers. But many firms already have experience with an equivalent situation—lawyers who travel several days per week or are at a trial site for weeks or months. Further, some law firms do move lawyers off-site—to clients, on secondment. For example, international law firm Herbert Smith currently has 70 lawyers working at client sites and expects the number to grow to 100. The experience of firms dealing with seconded and traveling lawyers is pretty good evidence that they can operate effectively without everyone being in the same office every day.

Fourth, the next way will be facilitated by decreasing reliance on secretaries. Many solo practitioners and lawyers in small firms already have little or no secretarial support. And in large firms, the ratio of lawyers to secretaries has steadily increased. (Junior lawyers are commonly in three-on-one situations.) To the extent there is still lawyer reliance on secretaries within the firm, technology allows secretaries to serve lawyers at a distance. In some large law offices, lawyers are already on different floors than secretaries and do not see their secretaries very often.

Fifth, many firms of all sizes already have experience substituting technology for proximity. One example is the increasing use of videoconferencing to connect multiple offices. Another is the use of application service providers (ASPs), such as CaseShare, CaseCentral and Lextranet, to “host” centrally stored litigation discovery documents. And, lastly, some law firms use products such as WebEx or LiveMeeting to present webinars to clients and e-learning software to present CLE programs to their own lawyers.

While no single factor alone supports the next way, taken together, these factors suggest that mind-sets have already shifted and that tools are available that facilitate lawyers working at a distance. The next way does not, however, mean doing away with law firm offices or working at home all the time. Lawyers will still need central offices for face-to-face meetings with colleagues and clients. But they do not have to be in the office every day.

Next Steps: Avoiding Problems

The skeptics will argue that daily face-to-face contact in traditional offices is critical. But it would be interesting to analyze how lawyers actually spend their time on a functional basis. Were one to obtain data about the percentage of time lawyers spend in meetings and the number of days per week meetings occur, we might well learn that it would be easy to schedule in-person meetings in such a way that lawyers only had to be in the office a limited number of days. The skeptics might also argue that such data would unduly discount the value of chance encounters, whether it is a lawyer walking into a colleague’s office or the proverbial watercooler chat. But let’s face it—many chance encounters are just distractions from work and a detriment to productivity. No one is likely to collect the empirical data, though—and the skeptics probably have a point. But lawyers interested in making the next way work effectively can take steps to ameliorate some of the potential negatives.

One place to begin is to examine how law offices currently coordinate work. It may be that the emperor has no clothes, meaning that presence does not equal collaboration. With a move to the next way, firms could take institutional steps that would help avoid key problems. Here are some ideas.

  • Schedule practice group meetings and require attendance absent compelling client reasons. Some firms may have to confront their own mythology here. It might turn out that some practice groups exist more in name than in fact. If the next way exposed such as situation, that would be a positive, not a negative.
  • Formalize mentoring programs so that junior lawyers have scheduled “face time” with their mentors. Daily presence in an office is no guarantee of mentoring—young lawyers frequently complain they cannot find mentors.
  • Have more team meetings and other communications. The fact that all the lawyers working together on a matter are all present in one office does not automatically mean that they are coordinated. Between busy schedules and client billing policies, lawyers who run matters sometimes do too little to coordinate the team’s work. Explicit steps to meet more often or coordinate via Web-based tools could improve both productivity and morale.
  • Add social functions. There is clearly a benefit to knowing one’s colleagues and having connections beyond the purely business. Given how busy lawyers are and how little time they have at home, many tend to limit their participation in office social events. Perhaps those who spent more time working at home would more regularly attend firm events, both because the perceived value would increase and because they would feel less stressed about not being at home enough. And some lawyers would gladly give up chance office social interactions for structured events that include the people they really want to see.
  • In general, a systematic approach to dealing with the regular “absence” of lawyers from the office could end up enhancing collegiality and other benefits assumed to arise automatically from coming to the office daily.

Technology can also help address the downsides, including the possible sense of isolation those working at home may feel. Leveraging e-mail and instant messaging can certainly enhance communications and the sense of interacting with colleagues located elsewhere. In addition, firms can establish collaborative Web spaces in which lawyers share client-, practice- and firm-related information regularly.

There’s Little to Lose in Trying

Where, then, is the peril in trying the next way? Lawyers and firms regularly make decisions that carry risk, though that risk is frequently not well perceived or appreciated. Consider the risks of nonpayment by a new client, the risks associated with hiring a new staff person or lawyer, or the risk of signing a lease. Because the next way can be tried on an incremental basis, it does not entail all that much risk.

The cost to experiment with suburban offices or work at home is relatively low. A firm that thinks it needs more downtown office space could, instead of expanding, try some of the tactics discussed here. For a firm with many locations, experimenting with alternative arrangements would seem especially useful, considering the possible savings. The worst-case scenario is that the expansion would happen after the test failed. But the upside could be a more efficient, effective, lower-cost operation with happier lawyers and more satisfied clients.

As firms large and small look to save money, increase effectiveness and improve the quality of each lawyer’s life, they need to take some chances. They need to look for existing models that already work—and to experiment with new models. This may well be an area where the large firms can learn from the small ones. Many smaller firms, because they lack resources or because they have simply chosen to operate in a different manner, have had to be creative in their approach to running their businesses. Rather than resist on principle, firms should look wherever they can to learn how the next way could work for them.