Starbucks, the prestigious offices of the modern law firm?

30 06 2010

Reading in the legal press about the financial difficulties of UK law firm Halliwells, with many reports citing high property costs as the factor at the heart of their demise, I started thinking this morning about law firms’ property assets. My thinking was compounded by a meeting with Axiom, a pretty cool company, which has stripped out significant property costs from its operational model, and makes this reduced cost a core part of its value proposition by offering legal services to corporate clients at significantly lower prices than many City firms.

Smith & Smith Legal Advisors: would you like legal advice with that?

In my time as a client of law firms, although office based, I was free to work at home whenever I wanted. Law firms I’d worked at had certainly embraced remote working by this time, but there definitely remained an expectation by many partners that lawyers would spend the vast majority of their time in the office (when not out with clients).

However, my in-house time was genuinely virtual: my team was based across Europe and Asia, our stakeholders were there, plus the Middle East and Latim America, the General Counsel and our peers were  in the US, and our external clients were spread across the globe.

Aside from internal and external client meetings (which would be more frequent on deals than otherwise), all the team needed was a phone, blackberry, laptop and bandwidth. As with many other businesses, the offices were set up for hot desking, and with a very mobile workforce, there was no culture of “presenteeism”. Critically, this way of operating worked. Well.

When I instructed external lawyers, the majority of the time this was remote. Face to face contact was usually only on deals or  relationship meetings (one area where face-time is very valuable).  Aside from biscuit quality (an important factor in law firm selection),  the location and amount of marble and chrome never really made much on an impact on me as a client, not least because I was always acutely aware that clients were paying for the bells and whistles.

Since moving back into a corporate environment, and now being truly mobile (home based, for an off-shore outsourcer that practices what it preaches) I have embraced a new way of working which is more virtual still. Travelling to meetings, and with a 3g data card and laptop, and a good knowledge of where appropriate working spaces can be found (quiet coffee bars, hotels, friendly client/partner sites) able to work effectively in-between meetings; the new model works well. True, conference calls require a little more planning and an appropriate environment, and above all confidentiality must be considered and protected (both in voice and data communications), but with the right technology, awareness and training, this is a factor that can be managed.

Having worked outside the traditional law firm office environment now for nearly seven years, I do look at the hugely expensive property assets (often with one desk for every lawyer, plus all the support infrastructure) and wonder how much cash law firms could free up by rationalising them.

Of course team meetings, mentoring, supervision and training all need to be factored in (and for the majority of law firms at present, a fully virtual firm is probably not the answer either), but at the same time the old model of a super-plush office in a premium city centre location, with space for all lawyers and support functions, plus huge meeting rooms etc is unlikely to be the best fit for many law firms either.

Look around at your working environment. Does it work for you? What are the costs and benefits. If you were starting your business today, what would the property footprint look like?

If you want to chat through any of the points in this post, you’ll find me in the lounge area of the Landmark hotel in Marylebone ….