by Michael Djavaherian

Confirmation that the pandemic combined with remote practice technology is changing the legal industry for good continues to roll in. Biglaw firms have been trying to decide between returning to the office, remaining completely virtual, or trying out various hybrid forms of work. The most recent announcement came from immigration firm Fragomen, Del Rey, Bernsen & Loewy. Fragomen, adopting a hybrid solution, announced that attorneys at its 55 offices worldwide would be allowed to work remotely up to 3 days per week. “There are great benefits to working from home and, at the same time, it is important to have in-person meetings, cross-team collaboration and on-site training opportunities,” explained Fragomen’s CEO.

As noted by Law360, many big firms now require their people to be back in the office, while still allowing remote work 2 or 3 days a week. Some don’t have any requirements on the number of days lawyers are expected to be in the office, while a few have gone completely virtual. Husch, Blackwell, for example, launched a virtual office that is the firm’s largest. This development is very interesting, in that it is one of the first examples of a firm office that is not based on a geographic location of the lawyers. They can be located anywhere, and will be members of the virtual office. Lawyers at Husch are flocking to be part of the virtual office.

The managing partner of Husch’s virtual office, J.Y. Miller, listed the benefits of creating the virtual office. His explanation sounded like XIRA marketing material. Noted Miller, it will reduce firm overhead by reducing the amount of office space needed per attorney. Giving legal professionals the option to work remotely and in locations where the firm does not have an office will benefit the firm’s recruiting and retention efforts because it expands the places the firm can recruit and provides more options for existing attorneys. And, he added, “it can provide for a better quality of life for those same professionals through more flexibility, keeping them happy with their jobs… you’re able to organize work around your life instead of organizing your life around work”.

Miller said that since the firm began to work remotely due to the pandemic, he has found that he and others have been able to get more work done in less time.

“You can now invest that time that you’ve created elsewhere, whether it is in a client relationship or exercising or spending time with family or doing something that’s important to you,” he said. “At the end of the day, I think you’ll have happier people who will be more productive and successful.”

Those sentiments are echoed by real estate lawyer Thomas Henry of Willkie Farr. In the course of a long interview by Law360 about the state of office, retail and hospitality sectors as a result of the pandemic, Henry spoke briefly about office trends in the legal industry and professional services generally.

“What many were saying in the beginning months of the pandemic is, notwithstanding that law firms and lawyers are operating efficiently from a remote perspective, law firms are not remote businesses. But the truth is, 18 months into the pandemic, we’ve proven, in fact, that we can be remote businesses. And so long as our clients are agnostic as to where we are doing that business — which is not a given depending on who your clients are, including real estate clients of my own — then you have to accept the fact that we should change the rules for where lawyers should be working. And the same is true in other professional services, business accountants and bankers and the like. And what we’ve realized is that hybrid work models are here to stay. … So it’s really the tolerance of a particular company or firm’s culture to allowing people to be fully remote, remote part time, remote on their own discretion, remote two to three days a week — whatever the right result is for that very firm, that hybrid model is here to stay.” [Emphasis added]

Henry goes on to predict that the city center office space will recover, but slowly and much changed, with a smaller footprint. Higher levels of amenities will be offered to entice firms back, things like satellite doctors’ offices, educational and day care, and expanded shared conference centers.

One of the fascinating developments during the pandemic is that those old stodgy firms that would have taken years, if not decades, to switch to work from home models and implement regular video conference meetings switched on a dime. Suddenly, their livelihoods were at stake, and business still needed to be done, so they adjusted. Once they did, lawyers found they liked it, and law firms discovered that they were just as productive. Now, to retain associates and attract new graduates, most law firms are finding that they have to, at a minimum, move to a hybrid model that allows 2 or 3 days a week of work from home.

What do these trends in large firm management mean for small and mid-size firms? If you are one of those who prefers an office (perhaps because of too many distractions at home, or a clientele who prefer it), you will benefit from the changes taking place in commercial real estate, and be able to find good deals on office space with amenities that were never offered before. If you hire associates, you may find that allowing work from home helps you attract candidates who would have shied away in the past. You may be able to create your own “virtual firm”, similar to the Husch model.

In most respects, though, the effects on small firms will be indirect. As law in general moves to different models, the model you choose will have greater acceptance. Working from home will not be unusual. Lawyers of all kinds will prefer the lifestyle that remote practice allows. No one ever says they like a long commute or inflexible hours. The benefit of a small or solo firm is the ability to make those decisions for yourself. Instead of a hybrid office, if it works for you, you don’t need any office. If you like working from a vacation home, feel free.

The ways we practice law have changed, and the changes are permanent. That applies to all firms, large and small. Here at XIRA, our mission is to provide the tools to allow you to prosper, however you choose to practice.