While nothing is completely certain about how law firms’ office planning and layouts will operate in the future, it is fair to say that there is an appetite for pre-pandemic arrangements, otherwise known as business, as usual.
If anything, the sudden need for legal professionals to work remotely from home exposed several previously undisclosed, or at least unacknowledged, issues.
1. Not every firm that has invested in a case management system is using it to its optimum performance
With an increase in home working, paper case files are likely to be routinely couriered between different locations, risking accidental loss as well as non-compliance with GDPR.
Case management systems and other digital solutions for the office are effective at eradicating onsite filing if implemented with a change management strategy. Otherwise, parallel paper files will be retained, regardless of whether these documents replicate documents already held within online systems. If onsite storage space is available and bad filing habits are not corrected with a supporting records management policy, hard-copy files will continue to be created and fill office storage.
Therefore, with the introduction of a new case management system, it is imperative that a comprehensive training programme is devised and rolled out, typically starting with one high profile department within the organisation who buy-in, adopt it and demonstrate the benefits before being rolled out to other departments. Building internal advocacy is key and is certain to be the difference between a successful implementation and an unsuccessful one.
2. Law firms have an opportunity for paper reduction
Partly because of issue 1, we see offices in which 20% or more of floorspace is taken up with unnecessary filing cabinets and box files. When we carry out audits, we also find that many paper files relate to cases that are either closed (and should therefore be archived) or simply require a quick action to close them. A thorough review and inventory of all hard-copy files/cases onsite can very quickly help you to identify quick wins for instant paper rationalisation opportunities and will lead the way of a roadmap to reduce filing over time. Again, start the process with a large and paper dependent department and roll out over time. Removing or locking filing cabinets as they are emptied will prevent them being
3. Lawyers, partners and administrators can work remotely
Despite long-held misgivings about allowing legal professionals to operate from home, law firms have acknowledged that it is possible and can be more productive for selected elements of work, if not all. The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated digital ways of working and the legal sector has been no exception. Pre-pandemic, this would have been thought impossible.
Law firms typically store between 10 and 15 linear metres of filing per person onsite. This has been proven to be unnecessary, and so for law firms to avoid reverting to bad filing habits and paper intensive ways of working, they should look to address abandoned filing in their offices, establish status of that filing and action it appropriately.
4. Less office space is needed than previously thought
We’ve seen many instances of firms giving up their occupancies of one, two or more floors in their office buildings. There have also been reports of some of the largest firms putting planned moves on hold or seeking to sub-let space in the post pandemic world. As leases come up for renewal, we expect to see many more examples of law firms evaluating the space they need to operate on a more flexible basis going forward.
Lawyers still need to meet colleagues and learn from their peers and seniors, but it’s now acknowledged that they don’t need to be at their own desk 100% of the time. Where paper previously acted as an anchor, the removal of paper will transform the office environment for the better and encourage new digital ways of working and improved compliance.
5. Having excess storage facilities encourages hoarding
Just as nature abhors a vacuum, so empty filing cabinets and floor space attract paper that should be either archived, scanned or safely recycled. By implementing a stricter records management system, law firms can reduce the amount of paper that is saved ‘just in case’.
If there is office space available, it will be filled and so ensuring empty filing cabinets are locked or removed, will prevent that from happening. It’s also not only filing that fills cabinets. A storage and filing audit will identify media and stationery occupying space that should really be offsite or centralised.
Taken altogether, these five issues spell out a new office layout model for law firms’ in the future. Space will be more limited but used more effectively to provide an efficient workspace for legal professionals when they are at an office desk.
Paper may never disappear altogether, but the switch to virtual working that was imposed on law firms by the lockdown shows just how much more efficient and productive digital processes can be.
It’s also true that many legal professionals, in line with peers in other sectors, have appreciated the superior work/life balance they achieved during the pandemic, as well as a break from commuting.
To attract and retain their best people, law firms will need to consider how to maintain at least a hybrid model of working. Firms such as Linklaters and Freshfields have already announced that staff can work from home for a portion of their working week, though these policies may well be reviewed in future.
A new office model saves money in terms of reducing square footage in areas of towns and cities that are normally running at the highest levels. It creates a modern workspace that is more attractive to people used to accessing and sharing documents online, rather than searching through cabinets or box files.
It also helps to present a more efficient, up-to-date image to clients, who are likely to be adopting or accelerating highly digitalised work processes themselves. And finally, it prepares the firm for any future interruptions to service, whatever and whenever they may be.
It’s the ideal time for law firms considering the future shape of their office space to audit the documents they have, the documents they should have, the policies they have in place to manage documents, and ultimately, how much room they really require.