More and more, technology allows workers at all skill levels to work at home. Should law firms think about this option in their long term planning? This posting is prompted by an article the The New York Times ran, More Companies are Routing Calls via Internet (01 Sep 03). It reports that “[i]nternet telephony… is no longer restricted to adventurous techies.”

Technology Background.The Times reports that the technology “has matured to the point that voice quality is virtually indistinguishable from that of a conventional phone call.” Some background: Internet telephony, also known as Voice Over Internet Protocol or VOIP, uses the same cables and protocols that transmit computer data to transmit voice. Whereas traditional phone calls reserve a dedicated circuit for each call, VOIP sends each call as a series of data packets over a shared line. Some law firms have already switched or are switching to VOIP.

VOIP Allows Working at Home. But this post is not about the technology. I was struck by another fact in the article. JetBlue uses VOIP “to create a ‘virtual call center’ for is 700-plus reservation agents, who work from home… The commute to work is as quick as a mouse click.”

Do Lawyers Need to be in the Same Location? In a prior posting, my answer to this was “Clearly, being able to meet in person has tremendous value. And clearly, downtown meeting space is required to serve client needs. But modern technology allows working effectively from remote locations. And as more and more large firms attempt to become truly national, it means lawyers from multiple offices should be working together. If lawyers across cities, states, and countries can work together effectively, then surely lawyers located in the same metro area can.” (See More on Offices: Downtown v. Suburban, 01 Jun 03.)

Most law firms already have remote computer access. Increasingly, firms will have VOIP, which will allow routing phone calls anywhere there is high-speed web access. Firms could save significant occupancy costs if lawyers worked more hours at home and therefore required smaller offices. Furthermore, if lawyers are spared daily commutes at least some days, they could either bill more hours or have a better life.

For national and international firms, breaking some of the local bonding that occurs purely as a result of geography – while risky – might actually result in more effective team work across the firm. Moreover, if firms are not constrained by thinking about offices, they might form teams that are based exclusively on meeting client needs rather than on the coincidence that several lawyers happen to be in the same office.

In the past, I would have said that reservationists need supervision and therefore must be in a central location. Clearly, JetBlue is disproving this. I assume that lawyers do not need supervision. The question then is what percent of the time do they really need to have in-person meetings or access to central resources. The instinct is to say they need a lot of both. That may be true, but at minimum, I would treat the question empirically. If it turns out that in-person meetings and access to central resources are needed a relatively small percent of the time, a dispersed work force may be feasible.

As technology allows new flexibility and eliminates what we previously thought of as immutable constraints, law firms will have to confront what the true constraints of their business requirements are. It may be that central offices are indispensable. But just assuming that’s so is no longer justifiable.