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Law Firms Evolve To Accommodate Growing Number Of Telecommuting Attorneys

Legal industry, attorney, gavel

Many law firms, attempting to attract talented attorneys and accommodate valued ones, are increasingly offering flexible jobs that integrate or necessitate telecommuting. Tech-savvy digital natives comprise a large and growing share of the workforce, and many millennials enjoy the freedom working remotely provides.

Leadership in this traditional industry is now confronted by shifting workplace dynamics. Top partners struggle to solve the issues of promoting effective collaboration among employees across media and maintaining client relationships virtually. They must implement new processes to safeguard sensitive information and creatively tailor their layouts and lease agreements to meet new demands.

We caught up with Baker Tilly partner Bill Apple to learn how firms are adapting to the rise of telecommuting.

Law Firms Evolve To Accommodate Growing Number Of Telecommuting Attorneys
Baker Tilly partner Bill Apple

Law firms are occupying less space, and the rise of telecommuters compounds a number of other factors causing firms’ square footages to shrink. Before the Great Recession, law firms were often space gluttons, taking more than they needed because they anticipated robust future growth. Since the recession, however, in-office headcounts have stagnated or declined, Apple said.

Anxious to leave large spaces no longer suitable for them, managing partners are partially responsible for the negative Class-A office absorption observed in some parts of the country. Space is the second-largest expenditure for law firms after salaries.

Apple said that firms are adding extra cubicles and flexible space as workers become more transient. New law firm design favors communal, collaborative workspace and plenty of conference rooms. Floor plans are more open, some including demountable walls for quick customizability.

“Law firms don’t need space for libraries anymore because client files and paperwork stored in the cloud are accessible online,” Apple said. “Also, partners are getting smaller offices while some associates are sharing offices or getting cubicles.”

Further shrinking footprints is the fact that firms now need less support staff.

“One administrative assistant will support multiple attorneys because attorneys are more self-sufficient,” Apple said.

The ratio of attorneys to secretaries, which 10 years ago might have averaged two to one, is now five to one or greater.

As firms downsize, connectivity, culture and commitment become chief concerns.

“First, there’s much higher demand for bandwidth both inside and outside the office,” Apple said. “Multi-person videoconferencing across separate offices and employees doing research exclusively online has made internet speed a top priority.”

Another priority, especially for established firms, is preserving their corporate culture and sense of community.

“Telecommuters can miss out on the camaraderie and important conversations,” Apple said. “Successful telecommuters must have the discipline to stay motivated to work at home."

Firms like that remote workers can be very independent, but recognize they may feel less loyalty to their companies. Apple said some remote workers are local while others are a few states away. The latter situation involves significant travel expenses, introduces state law-associated issues and can have important tax ramifications that can be complex for firms to navigate.

“There can be various city and state taxes that firms need to double check,” Apple said.

Still, many firms are finding that work-from-home programs are net positive for lawyer retention, employees’ job satisfaction and their bottom lines. If a valued attorney’s spouse needs to relocate or there is some geographic barrier introduced, keeping that person is now feasible.

“There are now fully virtual law firms,” Apple said. “We see the emergence of firms without a physical office, fairly large ones, using this model very successfully. Attorneys are listed by city and they can use a co-working space for client meetings.” 

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Related Topics: Baker Tilly, Bill Apple