3 post-pandemic workplace transformations shaping the next chapter of the law firm

The COVID-19 pandemic has clearly sped up much-needed change in the workplace that may have never happened otherwise. Organizations around the world transitioned to hybrid working models and some even made the switch to completely distributed teams. Business leaders began to evaluate just how much office space they would need moving forward, what types of spaces, and question whether spaces should be repurposed to better suit new working norms.

These changes are hardly short term. As we look to the workplaces of the future, we can expect that this pandemic will have a long-standing impact. In CBRE’s Law Firm Practice Group (LFPG)’s recent research surveying 149 law firms, 58% of respondents predicted that COVID-19 will still have a significant impact on the workplace even three years from now.

So what will the future law firm look like as it explores new possibilities?

With long-standing traditions, the law industry is facing its own set of unique challenges as it welcomes a new chapter. Because of the nature of work carried out by legal firms, being present in the office has always been the industry’s status quo. Firms thrive on in-person interactions between lawyers, team and clients, also associates, articling students and paralegals require hands-on training to develop the experience they need to thrive in their careers.

To find out what this next chapter might look like as firms navigate these challenges, Aura interviewed executives at law firms across Canada. We also gathered first-hand insight on these matters by hosting a Tenant Talks discussion, Navigating Disruption in the Legal Space, last July.

We uncovered three major post-pandemic transformations that will impact the future of the law firm for many years to come.

Utilization of office space is decreasing

Our research revealed that before the pandemic, lawyers and staff in law firms were working in-office 65-70% of the time. Working remotely was more of an exception to the rule.

At the moment, we’re seeing between a 5-15% utilization of space with staff still working remotely a good chunk of the time to practice social distancing.

Looking to the future, as vaccines make the return to the office much safer, we expect to see office utilization increase again to about 55%. Though it might steadily increase over time, we know that utilization won’t go back to the level that it was before. This reduction in utilization is attributed to personnel wanting to hold on to the flexibility of where they work. When we asked firms what staff were looking for most in the return to work, 60% stated the flexibility to continue working in a hybrid fashion, clinging to ongoing flexibility.

Providing more choice in when and where staff can work drives engagement, which in turn drives productivity and profitability. It’s a win-win for all –if done correctly.

This lower utilization of the office space comes with the opportunity for law firms to potentially reduce their footprint per person by

  • Where possible downsizing on total square footage
  • Underutilized space becomes opportunity for growth within the firm
  • Hotelling (turning areas into bookable spaces for clients to use)
  • Altering floor plans for experience-based working
  • Minimizing environmental impact by not requiring regular commutes

Office layouts are evolving to better support the team

We asked partners, associates, paralegals, LAAs, etc to describe the nature of their days in-office and tell us what tasks they typically come into the office to complete. Meeting with colleagues and staff, socialising, and enjoying impromptu face-to-face interactions were the most mentioned reasons why staff require presence in the physical office space. Other activities mentioned included:

  • Performing administrative tasks
  • Giving performance reviews
  • Being present as leaders
  • Documentation prep
  • Accessing in-office resources

Due to the important need to establish social and professional connections, it’s expected that even three years from, now, lawyers will still be meeting with clients in person rather than digitally over platforms like Zoom.

When it comes to the allocation of spaces, given the nature of work and the continued need for privacy, law firms do not expect to shift over to open floor plans. Having private offices and private meeting rooms will still very much be the norm.

What is changing in terms of office design is there is a shift to a more uniform, non-hierarchical sized and positioned layout of private offices and workstations. This provides more flexibility moving into the future for many reasons. Our findings tell us that, many lawyers are performing well remotely. Because it’s working out, they have more flexibility choosing between working from the office or working from home. On the other hand, administrative support and accounting staff don’t have as much choice. They still need to commute to the office to access the resource they need to perform their duties effectively. We will see a shift in this as firms become more digital in their document processing having long-term impacts.

An interesting observation came up about the need to entice legal assistants to work out of the office more regularly while firms work to become less paper-heavy. Although they may work from home productively, their administrative work can sometimes suffer out of the office leaving lawyers doing admin work that is of a lower return. As firms move forward, they will think hard about offering legal assistants and admin roles better amenities and access to natural light in the office to encourage their attendance.

Because there is a large demographic of staff that need to be in the office regularly, law firms are shifting towards making their spaces much more comfortable environments for everyone to enjoy.

When we asked partners what changes they’d like to see to their physical space, they expressed interest in:

  • Using glass separation rather than traditional cubicle walls for admin roles to establish a safe separation while keeping an open, non-claustrophobic feel.
  • Rearranging floor plans to move bookable private offices into the core to give more staff access to natural light
  • Rearranging existing floor plans in a way that enlarges break room areas and collaboration areas.

Experience-Based Working (EBW) is becoming the preferred workstyle

Our research tells us that as staff return to the office post-pandemic, we will see a long term shift in working styles.

As staff worked from home to practice social distancing, they had opportunities to save on commuting times and give some time back to their lives or work.

When offices are safe to return to, we can expect that staff will choose to become hybrid workers in order to hold on to this flexibility of choice. This means that their work will be based wherever is most productive for them and the firm. Personnel may work from home 2-3 days a week, and will happily share “free address” (or non-assigned) space within the office on the days that they’re in depending on role.

By adopting this Experience-Based Working (EBW) model, firms can continue to offer staff greater choice in how and where staff work.

To accommodate these preferences, law firms will need to develop the spaces needed to support different working needs and experiences in the form of bookable focus spaces, collaborative spaces, and meeting rooms.

Develop your workplace strategy

If you’re a law firm in the process of planning out your office of the future, there are many decisions to make in a time that’s still uncertain. The first step towards planning out your office involves getting a deep understanding of what works best for your team now and in the future. The future involves understanding what works best for your firm and your personnel . Start by assessing and measuring your team’s current productivity and finding out what workstyles and personas are going to be the best fit in the future.

For assistance in developing your workplace strategy, schedule a free consultation with Aura. We help you:

  • Bring partner alignment 
  • Assess firm productivity, remote vs in-office by role
  • Explore multiple working scenarios
  • Calculate your potential savings
  • Determine how to best utilize your space
  • Visualize potential design layouts and space allocations for your office

Interested in joining in on discussions shaping the future of the legal industry? Attend our next Tenant Talks event, “Pivoting the Legal Workplace in Canada” this April.