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Adapting in 2020: How Law Firms Are Approaching the Return to the Office

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Originally featured in Colorado Real Estate Journal

Businesses across the globe are facing a variety of challenges in returning to the office amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. Responding to these unprecedented circumstances requires a balance between upholding and instituting policy, and an awareness of physical space parameters, which could include making physical alterations to ensure health and safety. We've had conversations with many clients on how they are handling this transition, but here we focus on the law sector, an industry with a traditionally in-person, office-intensive design. Industry leaders with a variety of different settings—from a new office design completed within weeks of the pandemic start, to a shared legal coworking practice—shared how they are responding and adapting. As an essential business sector, each had the ability to stay in operation.

Arnold & Porter: Slow and Steady Approach

With offices across the U.S., Europe and Asia, Arnold & Porter is taking a phased approach to their return based on each office’s geographic setting. We were connected because EUA had recently helped put the finishing touches on their new 25,000 sq ft Denver office. We met virtually with Christopher Ruschaupt, Director of Administrative Project Management, and Scott McCombs, Denver Office Administrator, to hear how Arnold & Porter is approaching the return to the office, and how a new office design is supporting their needs.

How has business changed since the pandemic?

We started with asking how their business has changed since the start of the pandemic. McCombs spoke about how, "business remained steady through March and April, in part because our clients needed legal guidance on how best to navigate the impacts of COVID-19." When it came to the immediate need to work remotely, he felt Arnold & Porter transitioned seamlessly. A majority of case files were already in electronic format and the firm’s technology infrastructure allowed everybody to work effectively from home, even staff members who previously had no remote access. Ruschaupt added that prior to the pandemic there was no formal work-from-home policy, but technology quickly stepped in, allowing for industry standard remote working requirements such as enhanced video conferencing technologies (e.g. Zoom and Webinars) to support communication and connectivity between attorneys, clients and staff.

What modifications will be made to the Denver office?

When it came to the layout of the Denver office space, Ruschaupt said there was not much to address as there are only four workstations located in the shared office area, with each occupant facing away from each other and all other workspaces enclosed. “Fortunately support densities have come down, so we are not benching on top of each other. Over time we've been increasing that ratio," he said. He went on to discuss the future considerations, including whether people will be sitting in open spaces, and if so, how to maintain a safe spread.

From there we talked about the plan for shared spaces. For the Denver office, the plan is to close some spaces traditionally used by groups, like conference rooms. In many cases, larger conference rooms will be used to support the six-foot social distancing requirement. Ruschaupt added that a majority of the changes relate to policy versus physical guidelines. Each Arnold & Porter office has a different real estate footprint, so the firm will adapt based on the constraints presented at each location.

For all offices, Arnold & Porter has introduced signage and paths of travel, and the newly built Denver office is working on a plan to slowly migrate back with alternating schedules for staff, monitoring density while allowing people to work safely.

What does the future hold?

With over 14 offices across the globe, Ruschaupt shared how Arnold & Porter’s leadership has always stressed the importance of being as space-efficient as possible. In the practice of law, this can be a difficult approach, balancing enough reasonable vacancy to adapt to changes in hiring, acquisitions and practice group shifts without having multiple offices sitting free. But he predicts that there will likely be a change, with potential for some level of office-sharing considered in the future.

LawBank: Maintaining Operations During the Pandemic
Originating in the Denver metro area with future expansion plans across the U.S., LawBank is a premier shared office space for lawyers. We talked with co-owners Jay Kamlet, Founding Partner of Kamlet LLP and Founder of LawBank, and CEO Jordan Deifik as well as their Marketing Consultant Meranda Vieyra. An underlying theme of our conversation was the importance of adding additional value to members during COVID-19 while creating a safe environment that supports diversity and inclusion. LawBank is a unique offering in the legal industry and different from traditional coworking as it provides a community environment where members get to know and support each other in a social and business sense.

How has business changed since the pandemic?

We started all of our conversations the same way asking, “How has business changed?” LawBank's approach was to maintain normal operations as much as possible. With lawyers considered an essential business, LawBank kept their doors open from the onset of the pandemic.

Within the open space, tables are re-configured to create additional distance, and in conference spaces disposable paper is placed over tables and replaced after use. Cubicles were already available with glass partitions between them, so tenants have been opting to use these spaces more than the open tables. Overall, the transition has felt seamless for LawBank, with tenants still coming to the office for meetings, and actively practicing social distancing and mask guidelines. Deifik said, "It's important to us to follow guidelines, but it's also important to show that we care about our members, taking necessary steps to protect them at this time as well."

What about policy and space use?
When asked this question, Kamlet said, "It's all about maintaining the community and no matter what the space looks like, we are laser focused on helping continue that sense of community." When the pandemic hit, LawBank had to think on its toes about how to continue to provide value for members who were not actively using the office. Previously, one to two monthly educational sessions were offered as a way for members and non-members to earn CLE credits through guest speakers and panels relevant to the legal industry. LawBank rose to the challenge, pivoting to a digital weekly offering starting in March. While the connections made are different via the virtual setting, they have seen some sessions achieve higher than normal attendance rates.

Deifik added, “This has been about taking a bad situation and still finding ways that, even while they may not be the same experience at the time, add value operationally." LawBank has seen an increase in tenant interest following the pandemic, with Deifik following with, "This is exactly what we built this for—to appeal to practitioners who were used to firm amenities but didn't want to deal with the politics or requirements of working with a firm."

What are your biggest concerns with your offices moving forward?

With three locations currently and active plans for growth across the U.S., Deifik stated, "It's the uncertainty in terms of trying to standardize layouts and operations that keeps me up at night," as he looks to develop floor plan calculations that optimize revenue generation, while focusing on positive tenant experiences.

Moving Forward

A common theme in our discussions with clients has been adaptability; with change of this scale thrust upon an entire society, we all have to be agile. This forced divorce from the office, while inconvenient for many and desired by some, has changed the dynamic and expectations of today's workforce. No one knows what the future holds, but pre-COVID-19, we were already seeing a shift in law firm design towards right sizing – decreasing private office space to increase flexibility and maximize real estate. Remote working is no longer an outlier, making now a good time to re-evaluate real estate portfolios and leases for a solution that makes sense. For example, moving to a free address design could be a valuable option. This would allow flexibility for attornies to work from home, while still having office space for collaborative work, meetings and to serve as a resource to attract talent and communicate brand.

My prediction is that the key to employee satisfaction will be in how law firms handle remote work. During the pandemic, law firms are re-evaluating billing structures and cost cutting measures. With furloughs and layoffs, attorneys are now looking to leverage remote work and collaboration among their peers, resulting in a cultural shift. This begs the question of how this shift will play out in the future? In a May 2020 law firm survey, Loeb Leadership reports that 85% of their respondants are confident that they can continue to remain productive while working from home, and 67% would like their jobs to stay remote. Some measure of in-office / in-person interactions will likely always be necessary, so in addition to policy, law firms must embrace designs that support employees’ choices of where and how they work best. We all bring a unique perspective to this discussion, I’d love to hear from you on what you see for the future of working remote and law design following the pandemic.

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