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Hypothetical Case Study: The Modern, Flexible Law Firm Vs. The Traditional Model

As compared to others, the legal industry could be viewed as very traditional. Generally speaking, the way that firms manage business processes and talent alike – has remained largely unchanged compared to the organizational evolutions occurring in some other industries.

But due to a myriad of motivations – from external ones like more competitive fee structure rates, to internal ones like the shifting preferences of incoming, millennial associates – are forcing a traditional industry to implement some widespread changes.

A survey study that encompassed 1,100 law firm Associates from domestic law firms across the United States conducted by firm Cushman & Wakefield puts solid metrics behind many of these trends.

For Associates, key, personal factors have shifted dramatically. Associate respondents’ top four most important personal factors were work/life balance, collegial work environment, mentoring by a Senior Attorney and compensation, while making partner and having a private office ranked seventh and eighth, respectively.


Respondents expect dramatic changes in the workplace, too. A total of 63% reported that firms will implement a firm-wide hoteling concept either with all attorneys participating (12%) or a limited number participating (51%). The combined percentage of respondents who expect a U.S. firm will go completely virtual in the next decade – eliminating some or all “bricks and mortar” – was 53%, up 12 percent from last year, though 13 percent said it will never be achieved. Additionally, 70% of respondents indicated they expect firms to implement single-size offices for both partners and associates on a firm-wide basis.

While no one can gaze into a legal industry crystal ball and make predictions about exactly where the industry is headed, what is becoming clear is that the firms that implement the savviest management, technology, and organizational changes can create a distinct competitive advantage for themselves in coming years.

But even with these motivations firmly in mind, what will these changes look like? Let’s examine a pair of law firm management challenges from the perspective of what may be the traditional approach, versus new and more flexible management tactics.

Hoteling vs. Traditional Office Management Strategies

While initial resistance to the concept is near-universal, once the benefits are understood – hoteling can actually be quite an attractive office space management strategy for firm members at all levels of the organization.

Hoteling is defined as the short-term provision of temporary office space to employees as they need it. This is a break from the traditional strategy of giving everyone an assigned desk or office, and it is a strategy that produces several operational and financial benefits.

A more open, flexible office arrangement satisfies several things that current Associates noted as important to them. When an office space is more open, and attorneys are working from different desks or offices, the type of collegial work environment that younger workers want is easier to create. Unplanned meetings can occur, advice can be shared openly – people can jump in and help each other out in a less formalized manner – a phenomenon that not only saves time in terms of setting case strategy, but can also produce more desirable results. But a more serendipitous, collegial work environment is not the only benefit. Mentoring opportunities arise organically, and there is more chance for Associates to interact with higher-ranking Partners. There are substantial financial benefits as well.

Accounting firm Ernst & Young is one of the originators of the concept itself, and they cite annual real estate savings of more than $47 million since implementing a hoteling policy for office space management. It’s growing in popularity in the legal industry, too, as the firm Reed Smith implemented hoteling after it tracked IP address locations by its lawyers and learned that only about 70% of the workspaces in its Northern Virginia offices were occupied on a normal workday. Occupancy rates dropped even further on Mondays, Fridays and over the summer.

One caveat? You’ll need support systems in place to facilitate workspace management. 

But not only does hoteling provide many distinct advantages, but the traditional model also poses increasing drawbacks as the legal industry – and the business world as a whole – both continue to change and evolve.

As one example, does the Partner whose status is so senior he hasn’t litigated a case in the past five years truly need a corner office? Or is that expensive square footage a symbol of what he’s earned? A symbol of gratitude that could be shown in another, more organizationally beneficial (and less expensive) way?

Beyond that, you lose the inherent collaboration that more open arrangements provide, and isolate many of your more senior members in a way that keeps them from interacting with younger Associates, preventing the collegial work environment that has become so important to the younger cohort.

Outsourced Back Office Support vs. Associates Providing End-to-End Support

To the chagrin of older Partners, a focus on work-life balance has also become a top priority for younger generations of attorneys. One way to help provide that balance is by taking some of the back office work off the plates of Associates, and onto that of a third-party provider.

With modern, outsourced back office support – it can hypothetically look like this:

Specialized support personnel can handle the scanning, copying, printing and binding of case briefs, authorizations, settlements, claims, and more – which as any attorney knows – can be incredibly voluminous.

Staying late to copy, print, organize, and bind hundreds or thousands of pages to make brief copies may be something you consider well within the boundaries of an acceptable workload for an Associate. But if the firm across the block has specialists handling this work, allowing their contemporaries at your competitor to leave the office earlier every day, retaining your talent can become far more difficult.

Other services that a document outsourcer could handle in a specialized manner include word processing, and scanning and indexing

In a traditional setting, with associates handling all or nearly all the above-described work – burnout may occur much more quickly, and retaining talent can become more difficult, especially if your competition already has new, more flexible systems to complete this work in place.

Not everyone in your office is eligible to earn billable hours from clients and, not all work can be considered billable. As payment fee structures become more competitive, it is in the best interest of firm management to put systems in place that allow attorneys to focus as exclusively as possible on hours with which they can earn income for the firm.

To conclude, there are a myriad of drivers – both occurring within law firms themselves as millennials make their way further and further into the workplace, and external as fee structures become more competitive – that are forcing change upon law firm management. And while change is never easy, what’s becoming more apparent is that as time goes on, the firms that implement the necessary operational and management changes first are the ones that will reap the largest competitive advantages. 

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