What will the law firms of the future look, feel and act like?
Bean bags. Jeans every day. A Peloton studio. Ample law firm swag for visiting clients. An active social media presence that isn’t 100% sedate and formal. No offices and a fully remote workforce. Suits every day. Facetime requirements.
As the COVID-19 pandemic has reshaped how businesses work, function and scale, law firms have been caught in the middle of an actively changing landscape. On one end of the scale lies the traditional way of doing things: facetime requirements, few perks for employees, predictable rank and file pay, and a top-down management structure—the kinds of firms that answered, “Absolutely!” when major clients dictated that their law firms work in person.
On the other end, there is a glimmer of a different—and more progressive—emerging ideology. These firms allow associates to work anywhere, create and work on their own legal technology platforms and challenge the status quo in an effort to grow, expand and entrench. It is the decisions that these firms make today that will overtly shape the trajectory and impact of the legal industry in the next decade and beyond. Firms that are first movers will attract associate talent and, by extension, the partners of tomorrow.
What to Consider
Let’s start with the highest fixed cost aside from compensation for most firms: real estate. After quickly realizing that their workflows were (relatively) uninterrupted during the pandemic, law firms began questioning their real estate strategy going forward. Is office space even worth the price? If some portion of associates, staff and partners prefer working remotely full-time, what’s the point of each attorney having their own workspace? This is compounded by the fact that some law firms have already begun moving toward a more land-frugal model to cater to an open-office look and feel. As demographics shift and the workforce becomes increasingly remote, it’s hard not to envision the law firms of the future having a geographically hybrid workforce, especially when leadership sees the thousands (and in some cases, millions) in saved funds from reduced leases. The future could see firms hoteling office space and showy conference rooms with little to nothing else.
With reduced office space and expanded remote work, the question of variable compensation becomes a very real consideration. Will firms move to a compensation model that factors in cost of living? The argument can be readily made, but if Big Law reduces pay for remote employees, they might flock to local firms to work in person for the same pay. Will lawyers living in Boise but working for a San Francisco team become Idaho royalty on their Big Law salaries? Associates will certainly argue that if you’re working big market hours, you should get big market pay regardless of your zip code. Firms will be reticent to create two classes of employees: remote and out of the area versus local, but associates will flock to firms that offer optionality. Perhaps an adjustment to pay will be part and parcel of the tradeoffs of working remotely, thus making remote hires more palatable from the firm perspective.
Then there is mentorship and the value proposition for being in office for junior and midlevel associates. Many associates have lamented the lack of formal mentorship opportunities in Big Law, where many firms operate on a free-market, free-for-all workflow system that leaves associates to their own devices in finding work, guidance, professional development and opportunities. To retain the primary moneymakers of the firm (midlevel associates), firms will need to think critically about not only preventing burnout and reducing attrition among their ranks, but also catering to and raising up the next generation of their firm’s leadership when people feel distant. One Big Law partner we spoke to said, “There needs to be enough glue; we aren’t individual law factories.” Firms that walk this walk will win.
A Vision of the Future
Some hints to what the future may hold could lie in smaller firms that continue to prosper and grow. Boutique law firms have cropped up in the Bay Area and Colorado (among other markets) with lower billable hour requirements, team-bonding events, true transparency and tight-knit cultures. Offering associates a more balanced lifestyle for similar quality of legal work has paid off handsomely for these firms, which have seen consistent growth over the past 10 years.
“People want to feel like they are part of something bigger,” a former associate at an Am Law 50 firm told us. “These firms and tech companies cater and prioritize the connectedness among their workforce. It’s an easy sell when associates in Big Law look around and feel like they don’t know any of their colleagues as people, only email addresses.”
Even just hosting events that bring folks together matters. While simple in theory, it takes focus, execution and a lead-by-example approach from leadership to make people feel included. Firms must begin doing the hard work to connect their attorneys and staff beyond practice group and class year to build such a culture.
The last 18 months have put in stark relief the role that workplaces occupy in lawyers’ lives. Firms have been booming, associates have been working wild hours and partners on teams that have lost associates have been doing junior work as well as their own to scrape by. When things slow and people are able to stick their heads out, they will be wondering if the boat they are on is the right one.
Associates have been loud and clear. They want the opportunity to be at least partly remote and they want to be able to excel even if they’re not offering 12 hours of facetime in the office per day. They want firms to resemble tech clients—agile, receptive, willing to change. They want to feel like they’re part of something that feels human. Ultimately, they want flexibility to work how they need to work. “The idea of practicing just like one’s grandparents did has no appeal. I’m not going to do that for any amount of money,” an associate in New York told us recently.
At the furthest end of innovation, associates also want the opportunity to work on the cutting edge of legal technology, including automating contracts, improving machine learning to analyze agreement terms and scaling the efficiency of the legal profession.
As of now, one thing is certain: The business model of most law firms is not sustainable long-term, and as more competitors in technology, mid-law and in-house continue taking bites from Big Law’s apple, the smart firms will adapt and stay winning—and the complacent firms will fall by the wayside. The decisions made by law firms today are the seeds from which the next generation of law firms will sprout. The only question is which firms will jump on the train and which will be left behind.
This article was co-authored by Julian Sarafian, a Harvard Law School graduate and former corporate attorney.