Out of the Office

Will law offices be different after COVID? Attorneys say yes, but offices won’t disappear

As the work-from-home world stretches into its’ tenth month, the country has seen hundreds of thousands of workers migrating to home. Lawyers are certainly no exception, but questions have been raised on how the pandemic will affect the profession in the future — and how their offices will change.

An October article in the National Real Estate Investor reported that in 2019, law firms accounted for 5.9% of all office leases in the country, however, by October of this year, many firms still had staff working from home. The shift isn’t just from COVID-19. Instead, it began over a decade ago when law libraries migrated online and downsizing office space became possible. In that time, the amount of space per attorney was reduced from approximately 1,200 square feet to 700, and now, the prediction is down to 400 square feet per attorney.

In the Denver Metro, the office market vacancy rate increased to 11.5% for the third quarter, up 1.1% from the second quarter, according to the Metro Denver Economic Development Corporation website. This translated to roughly 1.8 million square feet of negative net absorption.

But some attorneys don’t believe the office will completely disappear. Attorneys agree that COVID-19 will change how the law office will operate, however, its function is destined to change due to the remote working brought on by the pandemic.

“I don’t think the office environment will ever go away — but I think it will be fundamentally different,” Barbara Mica, chief operations officer of Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, said.

Mica doesn’t believe that “purely remote” legal work would ever be on the table because there’s no substitute for hands-on training for associates and in-office connection. She also expects a smaller footprint as a firm and remote work agreements being used more liberally than ever before — thanks to the proven ability of remote working during the pandemic.

Rich Benenson, managing partner at Brownstein, agreed, adding that firms have been discussing remote work policies and flexibility in work for some time. The pandemic has been a “proof of concept moment” for remote legal work opearting effectively.

Benenson said he expects to see time in the office used as a resource — leading a team meeting, printing documents, conducting a hearing or trial, closing a big acquisition — the office will still have a real role. “But I think, short of that, you’re going to see a lot more work done remotely, and a lot more tolerance and acceptance around the fact people will be doing that on an ongoing basis.”

“Over time, there will definitely be adjustments,” Chris Hazlitt, Boulder’s managing partner for Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner, said. He said there won’t be any “big shift” and believes about a third of the workforce will say they are happy working remotely, but the remainder will want to work in an office.

Heather Boelens, BCLP partner and real estate attorney, said she agreed with the 1/3 figure for the workers wanting to stay remote, based on what she has seen and heard.

“I don’t ever see a scenario where our firm decides we’re not going to have office space anymore,” Boelens said.

She said she’d heard from tenants in connection with some short-term lease negotiations she’s had on behalf of landlord clients that tenants are willing to do short-term renewals. However, these same tenants were evaluating whether or not a long-term, or any renewal, makes sense after.

“I think some people have been just as efficient at home,” Boelens said. “I think companies will be taking a much harder look at the overhead cost associated with having an office and how much it has affected their employees.”

Hazlitt added that a lease really can’t be just abandoned, or a contract broken easily. Much in the same way, Hazlitt said completely restructuring an office is just as difficult.

Despite temptations about possible savings from office changes, Brownstein’s Benenson said he concluded that many savings opportunities are unlikely for the enterprise as a whole — while savings might be made in real estate, those funds will likely be redirected toward security or tech concerns and necessities.

In addition, recruiting, training, collaboration, record-keeping and teamwork all happens in an office environment, Hazlitt said. While this is being handled remotely, he said he feels this is being looked at in the short-term. “I think a lot of offices will rebound, and real estate in my view … it’s inflexible — and it’s very long-term gain.”

Boelens said her group has been hiring and a common theme she’s heard from candidates is wanting the flexibility of working from home. A candidate told Boelens they wouldn’t even consider a position if they couldn’t work from home at least 50% of the time, Boelens said. Candidates cited child care, as well as the ability to stay on top of necessary household activities such as laundry and cooking, as reasons for remote work being desirable.

“I think that will continue to be attractive, from a hiring standpoint,” Boelens said, adding that she feels this attitude is generational in nature. Many younger workers seem to do really well from home, due to their comfortability and familiarity with technology and flexibility in workspaces. 

Mica said Brownstein has also recruited throughout the pandemic. In the past, that has often involved relocation, which that doesn’t really rise to the degree it did before. Remote working has opened a “huge” talent pool not always available before since it is not geographically challenged as much anymore.

“Looking back, I can see that as a real watershed moment,” Mica said. “The access to talent isn’t just in our markets.”

“Ultimately, the desire of people to be collaborative in an in-person way will get us back to the office,” Benenson said. In conversations with a consultant, he said he was told the remote environment is fine for spreading internal goodwill and capital — but it is very hard to generate those two remotely.

Mica said when the pandemic has passed, a pent-up demand for reconnection with peers, clients and others will exist. From a space-planning perspective, the boundaries of office and home have been blurred, and thus, make the workplace a place where people want to be and catch-up, connect and work.

At some point, Hazlitt expects for firms to offer either in-person or remote working packages, where after choosing to work mostly from home or in the office, a furnished space is provided at the office or one is created in the home.

Mica said that current visions for changes to jobs allow for paralegals and support staff to have flexibility. “Those jobs will change … just based on the new technology and new way of working going forward.”

She added that receptionists could be tasked with connecting attorneys with resources and security concerns. She didn’t know if the impact would be a reduction in headcount.

“I think [the office] going to look really, really different — but also a place people want to be,” Mica said. 

 — Avery Martinez


Previous articleDespite DACA Reinstatement, Future Isn’t Certain
Next articleLawyers Call on Bar Associations to Condemn, Investigate Trump Legal Team


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here