Recent articles provide a good snapshot of law firm office design; sadly, working virtually does not appear to be on the agenda. 

Changing Space – Law firms (slowly) respond to egalitarian trends in office design (ABA Journal, June 2010) reports on BigLaw office design trends. A few firms are changing traditional design elements: Seyfarth Shaw in Atlanta has lawyer offices all the same size; Orrick in NYC has put associate offices in the interior; and Morgan Lewis in DC used the great top floor views not for partner offices but for a common dining area. These example notwithstanding and

“despite the trend toward more open, collaborative and flexible spaces, law firms have been slow to adopt practices common among their corporate clients and other professional services firms: one-size or universal offices, open floor plans, and ‘hoteling’ arrangements where professionals reserve offices when they need them.

Rethinking the Law Firm Workplace (American Lawyer, May 2010) reports that firms “want a lighter and brighter space that is progressive and sophisticated. They want more collaborative work settings where attorneys and support staff can mingle and share ideas openly and casually… The most important concept in creating a more effective workplace lies in designing space that fosters collaboration. For many firms, the opportunity to share information at unexpected locations in the office has proven invaluable.” I suppose this is some progress.

Contrast these two articles, however, to an Information Week blog post , Radical IBM: 200,000 Home-Office Workers (1 June 2010), which reports on an IBM employee who regularly works virtually (remotely) from the Canary Islands. IBM is moving from a culture of presence to one of performance. Since teams are formed by professionals located in multiple locations, it turns out not to matter that much where any given employee is.

I frequently hear lawyers and law firm managers assert that working virtually would interfere with collaboration. As I suggested in my January 2004 Law Practice Management article, The Future Law Office: Going Virtual, virtual work does not have to mean never coming to the office. Firms can take steps to encourage in-person collaboration when and as needed.

If being in the office is so critical, how do skeptics of working virtually explain that, according to a Gensler architect cited in the ABA Journal article, “as many as 25 percent of their attorneys are working away from the office at a given time”?

Could it be that lawyer and law firm managers are simply ignoring reality? Tradition dies hard but ignoring the truth has consequences. When I look at the average AmLaw lawyer overhead of around $200,000 per lawyer, I can’t but help think that’s buying lots of extra space. And whether lawyers bill by the hour or using alternate fees, wouldn’t many rather save commute times on some days and work from home?

Many law firms profess to be green – but how many take into consideration that a culture that requires physical presence in the office spews unnecessary carbon? Working virtually – either from home or suburban satellite offices – would save many a trip by car. Furthermore, maintaining individual lawyer offices means that much more space to heat, cool, or light.

So, what am I missing? Why aren’t firms moving to reduce occupancy and free-up lawyer time by supporting virtual work?