For Law Week Colorado’s June 2023 roundtable, participants discussed balancing the business of law interests with the needs and wants of staff in the age of hybrid work. Michael Barry of Ball & Barry Law, Jared Briant of Faegre Drinker Biddle & Reath and John O’Dorisio of Robinson Waters & O’Dorisio discussed how their offices are handling hybrid work and the various trends associated with a new way of working.
Participants said they thought hoteling and hybrid offices would be here to stay for local firms, noting the remote practice has enabled firms to cast a wider hiring net. And while remote work remains at the forefront of staffing needs and wants, some law offices may even be leaning toward a four-day workweek in the pursuit of accommodating higher Denver rent prices and declining in-person interest from staff and clients alike.
The transcript below has been edited for clarity and length.
BRIANT: Maybe we should all share what we’re currently doing in each of our respective offices with respect to hybrid work. Michael, do you want to kick it off on that front?
BARRY: We’re the smallest firm in the discussion today — we have two lawyers, and we have staff and other people that assist us. We’re in an office collaboration space, near downtown. So what we’ve [started doing] is coming into the office once or twice a week and working from home the other times during the week, and then we have remote staff mostly.
O’DORISIO: We have 35 lawyers. In our Denver office, we have one lawyer that manages our Telluride office, and we have staff of legal assistants and paralegals — about 16 or 17 of them. Our hybrid system that we have today was spawned by COVID. And we really let it be formulated by osmosis. We tried to have flexibility in dealing with all the different challenges that the lawyers had, because we had some that were trying to manage family situations, especially with the schools and trying to figure out how to get through that. What we found was the productivity, and being able to work remotely, was great. We have one complete floor of an office building in downtown Denver. We’ve been here since 1987, [and] we just signed a seven-and-a-half-year renewal extension on our lease, [so] we’re committed to having a downtown presence and office. We had our best years [during] COVID and post-COVID. So we’ll see what happens.
BRIANT: I think those words like ‘we’ll figure it out’ are the motto of the day. For us, it’s an interesting story. Our Denver office is one of about 20 or so offices across the country. In terms of how we’re setting policies and grappling with challenges, each geography has its unique culture and its unique set of challenges. But here in Colorado, we moved into the space here, and then six months later went home. So now we’re back, [and it] still has that new car smell to it. So there’s still this excitement about being in the office and where we’ve landed right now with our hybrid workplace policy, [and] what we expect from both our lawyers and our staff is two to three days a week in the office. And there’s no set days, but that has not surprisingly fallen on Tuesday through Thursday. And really, I think the goal with our policy is how do we balance flexibility and allow all of the benefits of being able to work remotely with opportunities for in-person collaboration, because I think, our bread and butter of what our culture is, is it’s highly collaborative. So, it’s balancing flexibility with that opportunity, I think.
O’DORISIO: Did you want to jump over to some of the challenges that we’ve had with staff? Because I’ve done this a long time, [and] I have never seen a market where it’s almost impossible to hire legal assistants and paralegals. Actually, paralegals are unicorns at this point in time — you can’t find them. We have been very receptive to the needs of the staff in working remotely. We have staff where their actual commute time in one way is like an hour. [And remote staff] productivity I think has just been great. Letting them work remote, they’ve been great employees. And I’ll tell you this: without allowing them to work remote, they wouldn’t be here. And we’re seeing a lot that want, at least 50%, to be remote. And, basically, because of the market that we have, you really don’t have an option. But it has worked out well. I don’t think we’ve sacrificed anything. We even have legal assistants that are almost 100% remote, which is very, very difficult. So they’re looking at being compensated fairly — and those rates have gone way up — and they want to be able to work remote or otherwise you’re not going to be able to staff a law firm at this point in time.
BRIANT: The commute, to some extent, is like the great equalizer. How are you messaging someone that faces an hour commute that they need to be in the office just as much as someone with a 10-minute commute? While on one hand, I think [remote work has] enabled us to recruit broader but on the other hand, ensuring that they get integrated and the like is a challenge. And so we have to bring the firm to them and bring technology and opportunities to them. But yeah, I wholeheartedly agree that each person has their ideal balance that they’re looking for. And we just have to do what we can to meet that.
BARRY: Our firm would agree with both of those comments. Personally, I’ve worked downtown and I live in the Denver Tech Center, that on off hours can be an hour drive. So I found that increases my time to be able to work by working from home — losing those two hours of commuting. And then for adding staff when we needed it, it also broadens the scope, I think to be able to reach further out. For our support staff, we can go nationwide and have someone work remotely. I think that’s been a great opportunity for us.
BRIANT: Yeah, for sure. And when I think of recruiting, maybe more so with associate recruiting, I think we’ve gotten very good at recruiting over Zoom. But I think we’re at a point now where to pursue top talent in the market, you have to figure out more to your recruiting plan than just conducting a Zoom interview, because I don’t think we’re able to convey what our culture is in a full way over a Zoom interview. A Zoom interview is a great step one, and it does enable us to reach a broader scope of talent, but then how do we look for in-person opportunities to recruit and to really show what our strength in collaboration is like? I’ve seen studies about the power of proximity — that there’s a balance in recruiting and then having folks at the office. What do you guys do? What are you doing with respect to [hoteling]? I know, John, you mentioned you guys have signed the lease extension and have your footprint. Have you thought differently about how you’re using the offices with some proportion of the staff being remote?
O’DORISIO: Yeah, I think we’re going to have to because we have [three larger private offices] and you have a lawyer that might be coming in six, seven times a year. So we’re going to be redoing our office structure in our remodel. And that’s something that we’re going to have to address because we’re going to do more hoteling. And we do a little bit now where we can have three or four lawyers sharing, but I think we’re going to see more of that, especially if we don’t take down some of the larger offices. So I guess they have to be here if they’re going to have that kind of an office. But we didn’t think it was necessary to give back [office] space. We thought it was nice to have the full floor. There’s a lot of reasons that works very well. And it gives us some expansion potential.
BRIANT: Same with us. I feel like before the pandemic hit, we redesigned our offices to be as efficient as we could be with our space. And since coming out of the pandemic, I feel like we’ve done a great job of delivering on that promise of flexibility to our lawyers and staff. But more recently, we’ve set aside the notion that practice groups would need to sit in proximity. I sit next to a corporate lawyer, and on the other side of me is a real estate lawyer, but we’re here more often than not [so we all sit together now].
BARRY: As a smaller firm, we found that when we have staff or support staff or paralegals come in, we’ve been able to use conference room space and have them come in for the day if they want a place to work outside of their home. And that’s been a great tool for us. I think just touching on Jared’s point, having the collaboration of being in the office every now and then, it goes a long way. I think when you’re able to have interpersonal interaction, I think it definitely helps to have that a few days a week.
BRIANT: There’s a balance, right? And the question is where’s that balance, because obviously, there’s great benefits from a hybrid workplace. But on the other hand, the things that you hear like Zoom fatigue, those things are real, and at some point, it impacts mood and culture and so it’s just a matter of finding where it is and maybe the balance is different for everyone.
O’DORISIO: I think you need to have the return to the office — you need to collaborate, that’s part of this profession. It’s still a profession. And you can’t really translate that to associates. We’re starting to recruit and again, recruiting associates has been more difficult than it’s ever been. I’ll admit, I’ve been doing this for over 40 years, and I’ve never seen a market that is this difficult to navigate. But they need to be here when you’re trying to train an associate, work with associates so that they see how you do it, how you think, to learn how to practice law. And we also need to do that with our law clerks. Because we primarily grow by being able to hire good law clerks, and then recruit them after they graduate from law school. And we found that to be a great training process that we can go through. Generally, we can have a law clerk that’s ready to practice law that really has about two years of experience as a new associate. But you can’t do that unless you have presence in the office and [are] working together.
BRIANT: I think that’s right. There’s no question that the next generation of lawyers is thinking differently about their careers and what’s important to them. And while hybrid work definitely opens up a lot of doors for us, we still do have to figure out ways like how do we bring training to our youngest lawyers? How do we get them in front of clients? In the past, that was pretty easy. If clients were in our offices, we were in clients’ offices all the time — how do we get them those opportunities because it is a mentorship profession. I think we have to be really strategic and intentional about those things.
BRIANT: What do you guys see in terms of clients? I recently hosted a client panel and one of our clients was saying [they] are getting back out in the office, and want to see that from [their] lawyers too. John, to your point, training is important, just the notion of getting those opportunities to the associates. I think another thing we all have to keep an eye on is how our clients [are] navigating the hybrid workplace as well.
BARRY: We’ve seen a mix on that. I have a lot of clients and the firm has a lot of clients that have never come into the office, and they don’t have a need to and they’re happy to do substantial business never having that face-to-face. And we still find that some people want to come in and have that initial meeting and see you but I think it’s changed. And [these] initial meetings used to always be 100% of the time in the office. And I think there’s been a big departure from that for us at least.
O’DORISIO: I think this is very unfortunate, being a little bit old school, that you don’t have the personal contact with the client. I think it’s really important when you’re trying to counsel clients in business transactions. In litigation, there are times where they have to be here and you’re getting prepared for trial or something like that. In a way, it just doesn’t seem natural [to not meet clients in person], but it’s worked. A lot of my real estate clients I’ve represented for a long time — they’re very comfortable with a Zoom meeting. So we’ll see if it comes back where more conferences [are] in person. I prefer that [and] I think you learn a lot, especially in negotiations, if you have somebody that’s in the same room with you, as opposed to being on a Zoom or a conference call. So I’d like to see that return. But it’s coming around very slowly in my experience.
BRIANT: I agree. And I think it just requires some intentionality and creativity. Like when you think of business development and hosting events and the like a little bit differently. Whereas some things historically, it was just like, ‘okay, every year, we host the Construction Law Review seminar in your office,’ and that’s just how you would do it for five or 10 years straight. Now it’s like, ‘okay, let’s think differently.’ How do we get the most reach on this? Maybe that’s a full webinar-type setup? Or how do we balance the need of getting good in-person attendance with a fuller region? Maybe there’s like a hybrid there. I think, at the end of the day, it’s required us to be a lot more thoughtful about the opportunities that we’re creating for others, and the events that we put on as a firm. But yeah, John, I’m like you. I’m historically a big fan of meeting people in person and interacting in person. I think that’s why a lot of us became lawyers. So it’ll be interesting to see where this goes.
O’DORISIO: Another thing that’s been a little challenging for us is just to get the client [in person when] they have no desire to come [to] downtown Denver. I don’t know if you’re experiencing that. But for the last two years, all I ever hear is there’s no reason, there’s no attraction to coming downtown, and then trying to even do a lunch or anything else down here. There’s very little interest [in] coming downtown right now. So I hope that changes.
BRIANT: I agree. And I think that’s probably the same feeling from staff when you’re expecting staff to be in the office. If you’re looking at public transportation, costs of parking, all those things remain the same. And then the trade-off that you get is sometimes for staff not as great. I would say while we maybe hosted less events in the office, I think it just requires us to go find different locations.
O’DORISIO: Yeah, and your commute in, that raises another issue here. One of the things that we’ve done is we pay for parking for all staff and that can run you almost $3,000 a year downtown — or a bus pass, which puts it about $2,000. So we do cover that. And there’s several [people] working in [the] office that definitely take advantage of the parking.
BRIANT: That’s a nice benefit. And we’ve looked at doing those types of benefits for staff as well. And Michael, you say you guys you’re not downtown, right?
BARRY: We’re just outside of downtown but we still get the parking issue from clients. When you say downtown, there’s a natural aversion to want to park and pay and have to deal with that. Even being just outside the proximity of downtown, we still face that. So I found it’s a little easier to engage with clients in some fashion, because we can just have that meeting the same day or have it more quickly than they would [if they had] to check their schedules and find two hours to drive downtown and park and so on. So in some ways, the benefit of it has been increased communication, faster meetings, that sort of thing.
BRIANT: I think one of the reasons that probably all of us have successfully navigated the pandemic period was that we all respectively had strong cultures before [and] we all had good connections with everybody when we all went home and were working 100% remotely. I think the challenge for all of us now is how [to] move that culture forward with lawyers who have started [in] a remote environment. I think across the board for this profession, that’s going to be a challenge [when] there’s probably just a different set of background experiences for those lawyers [who] have started in the last three years versus those of us that have been practicing law before that.
BARRY: I think the challenge too is that people come in different days and sometimes they’re ships in the night. My partner and I will often miss each other and be in a different day — so you miss that interaction even when you’re making the effort to come in.
O’DORISIO: Yeah, we see that a little bit. But primarily, it’s Tuesday through Thursday. You don’t want to count on anyone being here on a Friday anymore. I don’t want to say it’s a four-day workweek. But it’s getting really close to being a four-day workweek.
BRIANT: I agree. I think we’ve all gotten really good at knowing not to set — unless you have to, because we’re in a service industry — those key meetings on Fridays. And even Tuesday through Thursday, I think [we] really started thinking about core hours a little bit. And really with an eye towards those with longer commutes not setting meetings early in the day, or like those with children, really not setting the in-person things to happen outside of 10 to 3. [But] it’s not [a] hard and fast rule. Something that results from getting to know your colleagues. And I think we’ve all gotten much, much better at that just on a daily basis, like how do we work around each other’s schedules where in the past I don’t know that our profession really allowed for that quite as much.
LAW WEEK: What [do] you all think the future of hotelling and hybrid offices are for the region [and] for Colorado?
O’DORISIO: I think it’s definitely here to stay. We’ll see with our experiment going forward, but I’m anticipating that it’s going to be increasing. I think we’ll have at least half of our lawyers [in] a hotelling situation when we go through the redesign of our space over the next year or so. And I think it works with our profession, in the current work environment that we have because we are able to be so productive remotely, and there’s no reason that you can’t accommodate that and just try to balance that with the need for the collaboration that you have to have in our profession.
BARRY: I would also agree that it’s here to stay. I think it lends to the ability to be able to pick your kids up from school, take them to practice and do those things when necessary. So I think it’s definitely here to stay and technology will only get better and easier to use. But I also can see maintaining the equilibrium — this will be important, I believe.
BRIANT: I certainly agree. How we all think of efficient and optimal use of our physical space for in-person collaboration — that’s certainly here to stay. And then as we move forward with the hybrid workplace and hotelling, I think the things that we have been focused on [of] how do we continue to provide those robust training opportunities to those working remotely? How do we ensure that our diverse lawyers are getting great opportunities? How do we ensure that all of our staff and lawyers are getting the well-being type [of] support and resources? Lastly, how do we ensure that all of our staff and all of our lawyers are [getting] full [opportunities] for great career advancement while still balancing the flexibility of remote work? But yeah, I agree with everyone that [it’s] very likely to say.
O’DORISIO: One other item with hotelling and the need for it is that it’s getting expensive to rent office space here in Denver. You see it also in Cherry Creek. So even though we have these record-high vacancy rates, it has not been reflected as a reduction to what we’re paying in rent because the operating expenses are getting higher. Taxes are getting higher. The law firms are going for the quality of the space [and] those lease rates are not coming down. I think that is one of the financial motivations for hotelling on top of everything else that we’ve talked about.
BRIANT: I agree. We all just have to be a lot more efficient with how we’re using space, which I think we’re all doing — I mean, every one of these ideas, I think are born out of being more efficient with use of space and then also being more creative with the support for our staff and our attorneys.