The intentional law office

I want you to concentrate. Cast your mind back. Try to recall what life was like in the Before Times. Do you remember … The Commute?

Way back, before the pandemic, many of us would leave our homes early in the morning and travel to our collective workspaces. Then, when we were finished doing all the work things for the day, we would leave the workspace and travel back home. We would do this because … well, because that’s the way things were always done. We physically moved ourselves from a living place to a working place (and back again) every day, because we accepted the unspoken corporate assumption that everyone needs to be in the same place for work to get done.

Look how happy we were.

This approach made sense back when people were manufacturing locomotive boilers in a factory or building cars on an assembly line, because you need a lot of people working together to physically turn massive crankshafts or to install each individual car part. If Fred or Carl doesn’t show up for work, then the remaining guys can’t get the crankshaft to move, or the fender doesn’t get soldered on properly, or whatever. The work can’t be accomplished unless everyone is there to pitch in.

If you’re in the service industry today, pouring lattes or changing dressings or fixing leaky pipes, then your physical presence continues to be necessary. But as our economy has increasingly shifted from a manufacturing base to a knowledge base — as more of us exchanged our blue collars for white ones and shifted from group tasks to individual tasks — we forgot to update our thinking about workplaces. We unconsciously carried over the factory model into the office space. We continued to leave our homes and commute to a centralized location even though, in many cases, we didn’t need to be in direct physical proximity with our co-workers anymore.

Was it sometimes helpful to ask a co-worker to look over some advertising copy or give some advice for closing a sale? Sure. But these were exceptions; for most of the day, we sat on individual chairs at individual desks in individual offices (and then cubicles) and did our work individually. Work was something everyone “came in” to do, whether or not everyone needed to be “in” to get the work done.

It’s taken two years of rolling pandemic lockdowns to shake us from our torpid habit of gathering together only to work alone. Over the next decade, a Stanford professor estimates, US workers will spend a quarter of their work time at home — “the number of person-days in the office is never going back to pre-pandemic average, ever.” This has obvious ramifications for corporate office space, employee well-being, and even climate change. But the workplace itself is ground zero for this change, and there will be enormous ramifications in this regard alone.

Living the dream.

What we’re experiencing in our society is a shift from the habitual workspace to the intentional workspace. Rather than “coming into the office” because that’s what we’ve always done, workers will come to the office if there’s a reason to do so — and if there’s not, they won’t. The same shift is about to happen in law firms, whether the lawyers leading these firms realize it or not.

A useful contrast in approaches can be found in this Law360 article. Lowenstein Sandler, like many firms, will require employees to come into the office three days a week. This is how the firm’s managing partner explains this policy: “There is value to our people, our clients, and our firm of strengthening our community, which can best be achieved when people work together in a physical location on a regular basis.” This, of course, is simply an assertion of the firm’s preferred reality, a rationale for bringing back something like the status quo ante. Not one law firm in 100 cared about “strengthening its community” before people stopped going into work.

Then there’s Alston & Bird, which will not require its people to come into the office every day. The firm’s managing partner made these perceptive observations:

[G]etting attorneys to return to the office, not because they have to as part of a corporate mandate, but because they see it as adding value to their careers and to their clients, requires a sell on the part of law firms, Sullivan said.

Rather than simply expecting that protocols will return to how they were before the pandemic, firms should develop new work patterns that provide compelling reasons for being in the office, such as in-person mentorship sessions for younger attorneys, team meetings where lawyers can brainstorm in the same room together, and in-house learning seminars, he said.

“We’re not going to make you [come into the office] every day,” Sullivan said. “And if you do, we’re going to make it worth your while, so you see real value in coming in, rather than thinking, ‘Man, I came in because I felt I had to be there, and everything I did in the office I could have done at home.’”

These observations are hugely important, for two reasons. For one thing, everything law firms do has always been an expression of the purest self-interest on the part of their leadership and senior partners. “What will enhance our profits, status, power, and comfort? Do that, repeatedly.” Alston & Bird here is expressing that rarest of law firm phenomena, an employee-focused approach: “What matters to our people? What do they think is important? Let’s (also) pay attention to that.” Apart from anything else, this level of consideration for employees is an astonishing and delightfully dangerous departure from the industry norm.

But these remarks are also important because they represent an entirely novel view — that the law firm should give you a good reason why you should leave your nice home and come to the office.

This approach changes the default setting from “Come to the office unless you really can’t” to “Stay home unless you’d really benefit from coming in.” It assumes the law firm should make the case for coming to work, providing incentives or rationales that benefit the worker in some way. It reasons, correctly, that if the firm needs to order its employees to come to the office, then there’s nothing valuable (or even something repellent) about being in the office, and that has to be addressed.

Structured in-person mentorship, brainstorming meetings, and training seminars are all excellent reasons to put on some work clothes and make the commute. So are tightly planned and managed collaborative meetings with a specific goal and time limit, gatherings that couldn’t have been an email or a Zoom call. So are customized career advancement sessions with a professional development staffer and senior partner. So are strategic meetings with clients or negotiating rounds with opposing counsel where personal contact accelerates progress.

No, but seriously.

But let’s not forget, so are social spaces where people can hang out on couches and decompress for a while, greet colleagues and friends, share a coffee or chat about the episode that dropped last night. The social dimension of the office is the one that most home-based workers have really missed, the chance to connect with others. But in many law firms, people feel monitored and judged by the invisible six-minute taskmaster, looming over their frivolous social interactions, tapping its watch impatiently. Good law offices encourage human beings to engage with each other simply for the sake of engaging with each other.

There are all kinds of ways in which law firms could transform their offices into places where people want to be. But the connecting thread is that there ought to be a reason to come into the office. Rather than showing up just because you and everyone else always have, show up when you have a goal you can achieve, or a benefit you can enjoy, or a value you can obtain, or a person you can team with, or a resource you can utilize. The office should be the connecting space — the value habitat — for work.

So, here are three questions for you and your colleagues to think about and act upon:

  1. What would your firm need to do to make your office an intentional workspace — a value destination?
  2. Who would you need to ask to find out?
  3. When are you going to get started?
Editor’s Note: This article is republished with permission of the author, with first publication March 29, 2022 on his Law21Blog.
Posted in: Communications, KM, Law Firm Marketing, Leadership, Management, Telecommuting