Tenant Talks recap: what we learned about the future of law firms in a post-pandemic world
On July 23rd, Aura hosted our virtual event Tenant Talks, “Navigating Disruption in the Legal Space 2.0”. With Rocky Ozaki, Founder & CEO of NoW of Work Inc., facilitating the discussion, we wanted to get a feel for how law firms were adapting during these strange times, particularly in an industry that’s notorious for being change-adverse.
Panelists included representatives from Miller Thompson, Borden Ladner Gervais, Dentons, Jenkins Marzban Logan, and the Canadian Bar Association of BC. Though in different niches, our speakers found themselves very much in the same boat! Most had to halt all office redesign efforts when they were suddenly forced to work from home to combat COVID-19.
Here are some of the insights and perspectives that came to light on what’s changed, what will always be the same, and how their offices will be changing in the future.
More of a watcher than a reader? Watch the video recording of the event here.
What processes have drastically changed in your firm?
The most common answer to this question was that firms have taken this opportunity to finally go paperless. Sandra Lowe, COO at Jenkins Marzban Logan, shared the story on how her firm adopted an entirely new electronic workflow for its accounting processes that incorporated electronic signatures to significantly reduce contact points.
“I had been wanting to champion going paperless for a while. Pre-COVID, it would have taken a very long time to get everyone on board, but when we were forced to do it, making this shift only took 2.5 weeks; that included all training sessions on new software.”
The rest of the panel agreed that they’ve always had the capacity and intent to go paperless, but under the pressure of the pandemic, they were able to make drastic changes in strikingly short periods of time. Graham Walker, Regional Managing Partner at BLG, chimed in on his firm’s efforts going paperless by physically removing printers from 5 floors of the office. Starting with 20 printers and down to only 4, it’s become clear that the printer population has been decimated.
With many firms wanting to keep WFH as an option, what purpose does your physical office fulfill?
We paused to take an attendee poll and found that 44% of webinar attendees said they’d like to work from home 1-2 days a week. 37% responded by saying they’d like to work from home 3-4 days a week. We wanted to know why a physical office would still be needed, if at all, with such a proportion of employees expected to be working out of office?
“Engagement is very difficult in a digital world,” said John Sandrelli, Managing Partner at Dentons.
The consensus was that the key purpose of physical offices is to create an environment where people can be engaged. John stressed that companies need to purposefully redesign their spaces for collaboration. This is especially important for onboarding summer students who crave the development of lasting relationships to belong and perform best.
Kerry Simmons, Executive Director at the Canadian Bar Association BC, brought up the fact that working from home isn’t great for everyone, especially for people with young children or sharing a tight space with a spouse who’s also working remotely. She reminded us that employees will still very much like to have the choice to work in-office when they need to focus.
“A physical office always gives people that focus space and connection to the people they work with,” she said.
Sandra Lowe shared the importance of face-to-face meetings in the legal industry, telling us how her firm’s clients demanded in-person meetings with lawyers even when the firm advised against it during the pandemic. She found that clients needed to properly gauge a person’s personality and fit before retaining them. This means there will always be a need for physical meeting spaces for law firms.
“You simply can’t get the same connection through a screen,” she said.
Graham Walker anticipated that his office design will change to become more open and collaborative. The office will consist of shared workspaces and hotel desking options for workers coming in periodically. Without the need for plenty of individual offices and rows of desks, he expects that his office will end up downsizing from a 250 square feet per professional to 100 square feet per professional, or from a 5-floor office to a 3-floor one.
“We won’t be needing anywhere near the 5 floors any more”, he said.
The rest of the panel agreed that it’s time to get rid of the “I’ve made it” idea of earning private offices that’s typically seen in the industry.
How will your team develop relationships and innovation with less “water cooler chat” throughout the day?
All panelists shared their concerns that day to day feedback has slowed as a result of leaders not being in office with their doors wide open to welcome it. With employees working remotely more often, they can’t simply walk in to have those in-person chats.
Mike Walker, Partner at Miller Thomson, felt that not much innovation actually happens from lawyer-to-lawyer connection, but through cross-collaboration across professionals. He emphasized the importance of taking initiative on this.
“To really collaborate, we need to be exposing ourselves to people in our ecosystem, having events with them, and communicating with them. We’ll need to program new ways to meet with other people,” he said.
There’s a need to deliberately create these opportunities and invest in leadership training about how to run all of this in a remote environment.
What about the typical law firm downtown will never change and why?
In this speed round question, our panelists answered that:
- Space will always be needed, especially for trial preparation and a sense of belonging.
- Partners will still very much want their private offices.
- Resistance to change will always be there. Firms will need a strong change agent to manage and encourage change.
What lessons has the pandemic taught us? Is there anything we can be thankful for?
We’ll leave you with the words of John Sandrelli, who couldn’t have said it better:
“The benefit of COVID is that it has truly accelerated the pace of change overnight. We’ve found ways to force change and adapt quicker than we ever thought we could. This is not a new normal, but a new dynamic. The pace of change will simply accelerate as we go forward with a change of mindset.”
About Tenant Talks
Brought to you by Aura Office Environments, Tenant Talks is a speaker series featuring expert insights and best practices on office design, company culture, and workplace strategy for businesses located in Vancouver. Don’t miss any details regarding future events by joining our subscription list.