Location, Location, Location?

Last week, LexisNexis hosted a collaborative roundtable with Legal Geek: The Future of Work, sponsored by north-east investment programme, Invest Newcastle. Ushered in by a restless Jimmy Vestbirk, founder of Legal Geek, I am given a walk through at pace: unlike other events, which prefer a traditional format demarked by a rigid speaker/audience arrangement, these Roundtables shun the expected, and invite guests to speak up almost immediately whilst enjoying a beer or two—and don’t forget the pizza. Designed to promote collaboration, the evening saw lawyers freely workshop their ideas with peers; ponder their preoccupation with “privilege”, the imperative of owning London offices and the rising tide of self-determination. Joined by a panel of professionals who led the initial discussions, executives from Invest Newcastle and the Instant Group challenged guests to think about the future of law, and law firm.

The ongoing imperative of square footage came under fire early; as noted by several delegates, retaining property in the city is one of the few constructs that has failed to evolve overtime, and remains one of the biggest markers of prestige in the legal sector. Used as a shopfront for clients and new talent prospects, real estate looms large over the identity of any given law firm, and of course- is a big-ticket expense as a result. It’s undoubtedly true that the City has been constructed as a demonstration of prestige; magic-circle law firms vie for domination through innovative, and design led spaces, whilst smaller players, unable to afford the same design adornment, invoke agile work solutions, like hotdesking and flexi working to entice talent. Our delegates agreed:  London real estate was described by several guests as a “necessity” for big players in the legal world, regardless of any other work perks, in order to indicate prestige and standing. Office design was a similar priority; as noted by one delegate: graduates expect incredible London based offices, “it is a given for top talent: they are after a lifestyle, not just a job.” This certainly rings true when you consider the spaces developed by technology companies: in Silicon Valley for instance, Google offers workers a range of restaurants, play areas, bars and sleep pods to impress candidates and retain talent.

However, it’s not just talent that places value on a physical address. A thriving hierarchy underpins the ecosystem of the law firms which supports the necessity of maintaining a modern office. Lawyers navigate their careers under the lens of promotion; from trainee to associate, managing associate and beyond, each new rung on the ladder comes with its own individual perks—not to mention, prime office real estate. The coup of the corner office has reverberated far beyond the archetypal 1950s law firm- and remains a relevant indicator of individual success today. With success intrinsically tied to square footage, how can lawyers untangle their professional desire for promotion with office space? It will involve a profound change to working culture in order for this to change: when we still place value on “presentee-ism”, hierarchical rewards will always manifest in physical reward.

So, how do we shift the paradigm?

There’s little doubt that the advent of flexible working has changed our understanding of professional success. The urgency of “presentee-ism” is diminishing by the year, and lawyers- along with the rest of us- are beginning to capitalise on the self-determination the practice affords. Sparked by an ongoing slide in the number of face to face meetings and clients “more often than not will refuse to pay for face to face meetings.” It certainly seems that the business of law is digital bound and lawyers are sacrificing on old-school indicators of prestige as a result. Technology has certainly made remote working a reality, and has made the profession more agile as a result. With flexible working being the professional practice du jour, it seems that those corner offices are set to become increasingly deserted as lawyers are capable of working globally from the comfort of their homes...

Technology has been a force for innovation and has fundamentally altered the strategic future of the law firm. One delegate argued that law firms function more productively from virtual spaces, and skype meetings enable efficient cooperation, without the imperative of meeting in person. However, there’s a cultural issue at sake- that of collaboration. One lawyer noted that law firms run the risk of losing out on knowledge by becoming more atomised than ever; “teams of workers should be talking to each other- and this demands face to face working.”

There’s little doubt that there is an increasing preference for home working, not least for how it empowers professionals to determine their own schedule. However, this could have serious strategic ramifications for the legal world- particularly when it comes to commercial leasing. And, with client expectations crunching down on profit margins, has the time come for lawyers to take a look at their main overhead—property—and adjust as appropriate?

Will the industry continue to sing to the tune of the “location, location, location”, or will the virtual office be a reality sooner than we think? Whatever the future holds, we want to hear your views.

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