Firms Face These Important Space Questions as Lawyers Return From Pandemic Wanderings

Posted May 10th, 2021.

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By Jonathan Ringel | May 10, 2021 at 06:15 PM

The perfect example of how far life and law practice strayed from normal during the pandemic can be found in this message from a law firm chairman to his lawyers and staff:

“Please plan on being in the office and, therefore, plan on moving back to the city of your assigned office by September 7 and making any logistical and practical arrangements necessary to ensure your physical presence in the office,” wrote David Sanford of employment boutique Sanford Heisler Sharp (which has offices on both coasts and one in Nashville).

I italicized that phrase because it embodied the scope of changes that have occurred over the past 13 months—and those that remain. With signs that vaccines are suppressing the pandemic, firms are wrestling with how they reinstitute in-person workplaces.

Aided by my ALM colleagues’ reporting, such as “The Way Back” compendium on how firms are planning post-COVID-19 office life, here are three important issues I see firms needing to address as their lawyers and staffs get ready to “come home.”

How Much Space Do You Really Need?

It didn’t take long for lawyers to realize that their practices could survive and even thrive while meeting clients, appearing before judges and strategizing with colleagues remotely. That led many firms to question whether they needed to pay for as much expensive real estate as they did in the Before Time.

A handful of firms had already built a model of remote working, such as Taylor English Duma—with an Atlanta main office and dozens of lawyers working remotely around the country—but they were outliers.

“Law firms simply don’t need the physical space they currently occupy,” partner Chris Wilson told me on Law.com’s podcast ”Legal Speak” last year.

The folks at Winston-Salem, North Carolina-based Womble Bond Dickinson seem to agree, as they are cutting their office space around the country by 50% as leases expire.

“It’s a mistake to think we are going to work the way we did before,” U.S. CEO Betty Temple told Meredith Hobbs recently. “I don’t think our associate talent is going to put up with not having flexibility in the future.”

In the firm’s Washington office, for example, Temple said the firm will have fewer exterior offices on the window wall, but she said she expects younger associates will accept interior offices in exchange for working remotely several days a week. If they come in four days a week, they may get a dedicated office, she said, but if they come in just a couple of days, it might be an office that rotates among users.

How Do Changes Affect Lawyer Development?

Hartman Simons & Wood, an Atlanta commercial real estate boutique, had planned to reduce its footprint before the pandemic. But the firm doesn’t seem to think its smaller space—25,000 square feet down to 17,000 for 60 people—will translate to less personal contact.

Bob Simons told Hobbs last month that about 75% of the firm’s employees are in the office at least three days a week. He said the firm is particularly keen on younger employees being in the office because it’s important for their development.

“There’s a lot of value to the interaction you get in the office—and young people see that more than older people,” he said. “They don’t want to be in an environment with no opportunity to interact with others, get adequate training and learn,” Simons said, because they understand how important it is to progress in their careers.

“Remote work tends to devolve into task-oriented things,” he said.

RIchard Hsu of legal recruiting firm Major Lindsey & Africa was in that frame of mind last year when we spoke on a “Legal Speak” podcast.

“It’s extremely difficult to learn remotely,” he said, reflecting on his 25 years as a practicing lawyer. One learns the practice by watching other lawyers handle depositions and negotiations, he added.

Hsu added that firms should be careful about hybrid models in which some people are in the office and others aren’t. That dynamic, he said, could create “second class citizens” of the remote workers. He compared them to the people calling into a conference call while a large group is in one room, which becomes the place where power is centered and decisions are made.

The Cravath Question: Relocation?

My ALM colleague Dan Roe asked this question: Will Southeast Am Law Firms Pay Cravath?

What prompted it was Alston & Bird announcing salary leveling: Effective June 1, associates in the firm’s Atlanta and Raleigh, North Carolina, offices will start at $190,000, drawing them even with the firm’s major market offices and the Cravath scale.

Roe noted that DLA Piper and Jones Day have long paid Cravath-scale salaries across the board, but Alston & Bird was the first Atlanta-based firm to do so.

“Whether Cravath will become the standard for Atlanta-based firms depends on who you ask,” Roe wrote. “But what Big Law recruiters—we spoke to five for this piece—agree on is that Alston & Bird’s moves are likely meant to target talented midlevel and senior associates in New York and California who now have the financial incentive to relocate.”

That is a lot for firm leaders to consider.

This was adapted from Southeast Takeaways, an emailed column about the practice of law in the Southeast.

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