When it comes to the costs involved in running a law firm, renting office space is one of the biggest elements; usually the second highest cost, after paying staff. So it is not surprising that as leases come up for renewal, law firms are asking themselves whether it is money well spent.
In recent weeks and months we have seen a flurry of announcements that law firms are cutting their office space, and in some cases abandoning the traditional office altogether. It might be saving hundreds of thousands a year, but it is not entirely about the money. Having been forced into remote working by the impact of Covid-19, a significant proportion of the profession have decided that they prefer things that way, at least for part of the week. For some, it is what they had been seeking for a long time anyway, but it took a pandemic for their law firm employer to open itself up to the idea. Others may have been perfectly content to work in the office but, having made the switch, have found they enjoy home working more than expected.
So, from a law firm perspective, restructuring working practices to allow for more remote working on a permanent basis and thereby creating big savings on real estate costs seems like a ‘win, win’. Many firms will still keep a scaled-down office, to ensure that lawyers still have somewhere to meet clients, hold team activities and use a desk on an ad hoc basis. But while law firm bosses stare gleefully at their balance sheets, are they failing to notice a looming existential threat further down the line?
While many lawyers do prefer working from home, cutting out the gruelling daily commute and often getting to spend more time with family, it does not suit everyone. For some, home working means isolation and poor mental health. For others, with no quiet place to work, it means stress and a lack of separation between work and home life. But more broadly, there is an entire category of the law firm workforce for whom remote working could prove hugely detrimental: trainee and junior lawyers in the early stages of their legal career.
If everyone in the firm is working from disparate locations, junior members of the practice miss out on all that insight and knowledge that they used to gain from being in the office – listening to those around them
Why is remote working such a problem for them? The obvious point is that younger people are far less likely to have a spare room or pleasant garden office from which to work. But there is also a much bigger issue that puts the long-term viability of any firm at risk. It is about one of the key ways that young lawyers learn their trade: through osmosis. Yes, new lawyers still receive training and supervision from managers when working remotely, and perhaps they will benefit from plenty of direct interaction with their supervisor. But if everyone in the firm is working from disparate locations, junior members of the practice miss out on all that insight and knowledge that they used to gain from being in the office – listening to those around them.
Junior lawyers might be given a training course on client relationships, for example. But is that really as good as hearing the senior lawyers around them speaking to clients on the telephone? Listening to those conversations helps rookie lawyers to learn the appropriate tone, the extent of introductory small talk, the subtle ways of bringing the discussion back to the main point, the polite way to let a client know that their suggested idea is a complete non-starter in the eyes of the law. They learn the balance that a good divorce lawyer strikes between listening sympathetically to a distraught client and maintaining appropriate professional distance. They hear how an experienced conveyancer takes the heat out of phone calls with clients frustrated by the process. They glean what tone a litigator should take when they call their opponent to sound them out over a settlement deal.
These are the soft skills that lawyers learn as they go along and develop with experience. But without the chance to regularly see and hear colleagues putting them into action, younger lawyers will have to work it all out for themselves. Not only is that harder, but the results are likely to be less good, and more inconsistent throughout the firm, with no coherent culture.
In 2021, the notion of all lawyers returning to the office full-time is inconceivable and (for most) undesirable. But when deciding where the balance lies, who should come to the office and how often, the osmosis factor for junior staff should not be forgotten. The real value in a law firm lies in its people, not its property. Seeking immediate financial gains from reducing the office footprint could prove a very false economy in the long term.
Rachel Rothwell is editor of Gazette sister magazine Litigation Funding, the essential guide to finance and costs. For subscription details, tel: 020 8049 3890, or click here.