Law firm managers are gleaning lessons for their future business operations from changes in the workplace necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Most notably, firms that have had a positive experience with their attorneys working from home are assessing the potential cost savings and efficiencies to be realized by carrying a more flexible workplace model into the future.
“What has changed is that remote work is not seen as a lesser commitment to our clients or our colleagues.”
— John T. Morrier, Casner & Edwards
With everyone in the same boat working from home, the pandemic has gone a long way toward erasing the traditional stigma attached to the lawyer who works remotely, according to John T. Morrier, managing partner at Casner & Edwards in Boston.
“What has changed is that remote work is not seen as a lesser commitment to our clients or our colleagues,” Morrier said, noting that with clients not in their offices, “they understand that we’re not in ours.”
The prospect of having more lawyers working from home has firms thinking about their future office-space needs.
“We are not getting rid of real estate right now,” said Cathleen A. Schmidt, executive director of McLane Middleton, a New Hampshire-based firm with five offices, including in Boston and Woburn.
“But when our leases come due, we are thinking long and hard about how we do our space-planning,” she added.
Kelli J. Proia, a law firm consultant in Lincoln, Rhode Island, advises clients primarily in the Greater Boston market and teaches a course at Suffolk University Law School called “The 21st Century Legal Profession.”
According to Proia, the pandemic has “upended” the business of law more dramatically than any other development since the billable hour was introduced 100 years ago.
“We’re six months into the pandemic and very few of the lawyers I speak to want to return to the office,” Proia said, adding that one attorney whom she coaches trumpets the fact that he saves four hours a day simply by avoiding the daily commute.
“We’re six months into the pandemic and very few of the lawyers I speak to want to return to the office.”
— Kelli J. Proia, Lincoln, Rhode Island
“He says it’s a win-win,” Proia said. “He’s able to bill more and have more of his day [for himself]. He tells me, ‘Why would I ever want to do that commute again?’”
Like many firms, Casner & Edwards long ago created the capacity to allow for and facilitate its lawyers working remotely, Morrier said. But remote work had always been seen as the exception, the expectation being that most lawyers would be in the office.
The fact that Casner & Edwards had an infrastructure in place to support a remote workforce proved critical with the outbreak of the pandemic earlier this year.
“We adapted pretty quickly to serving our clients’ needs remotely,” Morrier said. “[We demonstrated] we can get quality work done for our clients and serve them wherever we are.”
Likewise, Schmidt said McLane Middleton was in a good position from a technological standpoint for its attorneys to work from wherever and whenever they wanted once Massachusetts and other states began declaring pandemic emergencies in March.
“We were able to immediately pivot and have all of our legal professionals work remotely,” she said. “We definitely upped our game in the first few weeks in terms of video technology.”
Kenneth J. Albano, managing partner at Springfield-based Bacon Wilson, said the younger lawyers in the firm’s five offices tended to adapt better to working remotely than the older attorneys.
While working remotely ultimately has worked well for most of Bacon’s lawyers, the firm has learned that the model it not a good fit for some areas of practice, Albano said. For example, closings cannot be conducted online, which has proven to be a particular problem for Bacon as it has the largest residential real estate practice in western Massachusetts.
“Although we tell people to work remotely and that safety is a priority, they recognize that, in order to close these transactions, they have to come in,” Albano said. “Wearing a mask is mandated when you walk into the office. We have Plexiglas in every conference room that separates every client from every lawyer. They can pass documents underneath the Plexiglas.”
Schmidt said attorneys in McLane Middleton’s trusts and estates practice group developed a creative workaround in response to the pandemic that she believes will continue into the future. After preparing a client’s estate planning documents, lawyers conduct “drive-up signings” by having two witnesses at a pre-determined location where the documents are passed to clients seated in their vehicles for execution.
“It’s a convenient way to meet with clients where they are,” Schmidt said. “We can have 15 or 20 people come on a Saturday and sign their documents. That’s a pretty efficient way to conduct that business.”
Morrier, too, said some changes wrought by the pandemic will become the “new normal.”
“What we’ll see in the future is kind of what we’re seeing now at some level,” he said. “There’s a mix of people in the office, some people working remotely, some people doing a version of both, some people doing exclusively one or the other.”
But not everyone is on board the remote-working train. Sheryl J. Dennis, founding partner of six-attorney Fields & Dennis in Wellesley Hills, said the family law and estate-planning firm has experienced mixed results with working from home, with some of the firm’s attorneys not being as productive in terms of billings or meeting client expectations.
With the pandemic limiting the use of high-priced office space and with the prospect of more lawyers working from home, some firms may be re-thinking their future office needs. But Morrier said his firm isn’t one of them.
“We have a nice compact footprint right on the edge of the Seaport [District],” Morrier said. “We were pioneers going into that neighborhood. We have a decent rate and the right amount of space.”
But what the pandemic and success of the firm’s work-from-home model has done is put to rest thoughts of opening suburban offices to spread the firm’s footprint, he noted.
“People have seen that they can set up home offices pretty nicely and that we don’t need satellites around Boston,” Morrier said.
Because Bacon Wilson represents commercial landlords, Albano said he’s sensitive to their concerns that the work-at-home phenomenon has many tenants reconsidering their need for office space.
But Albano said his firm has no plans to downsize. In fact, Bacon Wilson is going forward with plans for building out a new location for the Westfield office. Those plans were interrupted by the pandemic, but Albano said he expects construction to commence soon and for the firm to move into the new space before the end of the year.
“That’s going to be a good thing for us, to have another state-of-the-art facility,” he said.
Proia said she’s advising law firms to “downgrade their footprint” should they decide to commit to a remote work model for the long haul. She also said firms should consider reworking their office spaces.
“You’ll have some dedicated offices for the lawyers who want to come into the office every day, some flex offices for the people who come into work once a week or once a month, and conference rooms where you can sign deals or conduct closings,” she said. “It must be a flexible space that can serve many uses.”
Lawyers say that one of the more profound changes brought about by the pandemic is that attorneys, clients, judges and court staff have been forced to achieve a comfort level with videoconferencing. Attorneys recognize the potential savings to all stakeholders in terms of time and travel costs through the use of videoconferencing for routine court appearances and meeting with clients.
In fact, Morrier said that he now tends to communicate more with clients through videoconferences than regular phone calls.
“There’s a bit more connectivity there,” he said. “But there are also some cost-savings in not traveling.”
Matthew P. Barach, head of a four-attorney family law firm in Framingham, said he’s found clear advantages to connecting with clients using videoconferencing.
“Being able to talk remotely to clients by Zoom and not having to be physically in your office with them can be helpful,” he said. “There’s less wasted time and that leads to better efficiency and more productivity.”
Morrier credits the state courts with their efforts to videoconference routine court appearances.
“No longer does it take a long time to go to court,” Morrier said. “That cost savings and time savings is nice.”
And though he acknowledges that remote court appearances typically are not as effective as in-person appearances, he sees the utility of videoconferencing for routine matters.
“The state has adapted quickly to this, but not in a way that it looks permanent,” he said. “I’d love to see more of that becoming systematized in the state court.”
But Dennis said her experience with a case filed in Worcester Probate & Family Court has been disappointing — to say the least.
“It’s a disaster,” Dennis said. “They can’t even do Zoom. They can do teleconferences and that’s about it.”
Still, Morrier remains hopeful.
“For some of this, I hope we don’t go back to our inefficient old ways or our hide-bound expectations of what it means to be a good lawyer or a good colleague, requiring a long commute, face time [in the office], and ignoring your family,” Morrier said.