How to ‘Justify the Commute’: Law Firms Are Trying to Make the Office Better Than Home

After more than a year and a half of working remotely, law firms are pulling all sorts of levers to encourage their attorneys and staff to come into the office regularly: free food, a more relaxed dress code and fun charity competitions.

In the time since the pandemic began, the workplace has seen a shift. Many attorneys found they worked more efficiently from home without a commute, and have enjoyed the flexibility. Simply showing up to the office is no longer the default, and law firms are looking for ways to bring people in.

“You now have to justify whatever their commute is. You have to say, ‘What’s it worth it to me as an individual to come in and do that,’” said Tom Fulcher, vice chairman at Savills and chairman of its legal tenant practice group. “I think you’re going to see a lot more focus on serendipitous interactions, driving people through the space through the course of the day.” 

At stake is the cultural glue that holds firms together and makes them more than just a collection of “free agents,” said legal consultant Mike Short of LawVision Group. Having personal relationships are crucial in creating a connection that keeps attorneys at their firms, he added. Many younger attorneys have yet to even set foot in their firm’s office, and that’s affecting their training.

Anything to boost the attendance is money well spent,” Short said. 

And spending law firms are.

Firms are looking to encourage attorneys to come in and interact with each other in a variety of ways. Some are offering free food in order to increase traffic to common areas. Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson is instituting “Reconnect Wednesdays,” where personnel can stop by the office café to pick up free “grab and go” lunches.

Others, such as Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, are running tours for those who have yet to physically step foot in the office—and also offering free food.

In one zero-cost option for making people more comfortable, dress codes are changing as well. Akin Gump, Fried Frank, Greenberg Traurig and others are allowing attorneys to wear business causal, including jeans, when they’re in the office.

“Law firms are far more than just the technical practice of law. There’s a people. There’s a culture,” said Jaret Davis, co-managing partner of Greenberg Traurig’s Miami office. “We absolutely believe that in-person human interaction, that creativity, is part of our DNA.”

The firm does not have a solidified policy for returning to the office. His office has been slowing ramping up its in-person events while also taking a more forward-looking approach by, for example, exploring changes to the Miami office such as enhancing the employee lounge.

Cozen O’Connor, which is encouraging attorneys to come in a “majority of the time,” is trying a little bit of everything.

Six months ago, the firm put together a committee of attorneys, secretaries and various business professionals with the goal of creating a plan for what the post-pandemic office will look like.

As president and managing partner Vincent McGuinness put it, the firm knew that the office of the past was “long gone.” Additionally, the firm grew immensely over the pandemic, through law school hires and laterals alike—few of which have stepped foot into the physical office at all.

It was easy pre-pandemic. … This is much different,” McGuinness said. “Making sure people have the opportunities to connect and engage, particularly with a generation of lawyers who haven’t done it in the past, is a real challenge.”

So the committee came up with a little bit of something for everyone. To boost morale and engagement, the firm has put together a charity cornhole competition, where attorneys and staff compete in individual offices and the finalists meet in Florida for the final face-off.

For the younger attorneys, the firm has hired one-on-one coaches to get them acquainted with working in the office. And for laterals, the firm has already hosted an office-by-office reception for new laterals and intends to host a firmwide meetup in New York or Philadelphia later on. And, like others, Cozen is offering free food and a more relaxed dress code.

“We are making sure they come back after that first week, after they’re well-fed,” McGuinness said.

Firms can also look to technology and the layout of their offices themselves as a way to entice personnel to come in, said Marty Festenstein, head of Savills’ workplace practice group. By investing in better technology—such as high-tech Zoom rooms, where trial teams can call into hearings together, and mobile workspaces that allow for more flexibility in where you plug in each day—law firms can provide an experience that isn’t possible from home.

And by prioritizing mobility, firms can help foster greater interactions between those in the office, he added. While “hoteling” is largely seen as a way to reduce square footage by making spaces more flexible day-to-day, it’s also more conducive to collaborative work than providing every lawyer with an office and a door to close. Some firms, such as Perkins Coie and Lowenstein Sandler, are already making the office more of a “destination” through a repurposing of space.

“The whole idea of a ‘destinational workplace’ is more critical now than ever before,” Festenstein said. “Enhanced technology, choices and options … will make people want to come in and reenergize their connections with other people.”

Zubair Q Britania

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