Tear Down the Walls: Restructuring Your Law Firm Environment
It’s your typical Monday morning in a not-so-traditional office. A young lawyer sits next to an engineer who is designing a new robotic device. Before heading to her desk, she had grabbed a cup of coffee, and while adding her sweetener, she ran into a tax advisor and asked if he could explain a tax loophole that related to a client’s new start-up. She acquired the new client last week at an office luncheon, in which he presented his business proposal to the room.
Meanwhile, the robotic engineer is trying to put together a package to submit for patent protection, but he needs graphic support. So he heads over to play a game of ping pong with a millennial marketing team that shares a small glass office on the other side of the coffee/happy hour bar. The young attorney is asked to join them in helping prepare the submission for the PTO.
For the attorney, it’s a pretty damn good day. Unfortunately this attorney and many more like her are not working at your law firm. As a matter of fact they don’t work at a law firm at all. They work at WeWork, one of a number of shared-office space concepts that are sprouting up across the country. These type of spaces cater to entrepreneurs, freelancers, start-ups and small businesses.
The WeWork concept fits perfectly with the attitude and thinking of our leaders of tomorrow. Such shared-office environments create networking opportunities, provide flexibility and facilitate collaboration. They are exactly what the Millennials are looking for in the modern workplace.
Problems with the Law Firm Environment
So why does the young attorney in my example not work at your firm? It’s pretty obvious.
Who wants to work in an environment where your ideas don’t matter, your voice isn’t heard, and you’re told to do things without explanation and are not given the chance to improve upon the process and the final result? It’s a shame the law firm culture and structure creates such a hierarchical environment that doesn’t foster growth and collaboration – in most cases. It’s not about who gets the biggest office, the corner office, origination fees or partner equity. It’s about sharing space, sharing ideas, and learning and connecting while having fun and enjoying a balanced work-life ratio.
Adapting to the Modern Office Culture
How can law firms learn from and adapt to the WeWork culture?
First, let me say that, though I am speaking to law firm leaders universally, there are firms out there that are working hard to reinvent how they can better serve their clients and attract and retain talent by adopting contemporary business practices.
These firms, and proudly some of them are our clients, are redesigning their office space to equalize and remove hierarchy. They are creating more group areas for collaboration and recharging, and these areas have the best views so everyone can enjoy them. Some firms are building mentoring programs and generational teams, and some have developed marketing and business development incentive programs. This is a start, and I applaud them.
But in general we need to rethink the law firm so that it survives. There are already disruptors out there changing the legal landscape like Axiom, Avvo and the aforementioned collaborative workplaces. Young attorneys are not getting what they need from their firms, so they leave and go create their own.
Instead of losing talent, what if the firm sent small groups to work in an environment like WeWorks? They could share, learn, collaborate, network and bill hours. They would have the work-life balance they demand, and the firm could grow without acquiring additional costs related to space and office availability.
3 Steps to Modernizing Your Law Firm
While there are countless initiatives you could implement to reinvent your law firm, here are some core tactics to get you started:
Redesign the workspace so that it inspires an integrated approach to legal services, one that fosters collaboration, mentoring and brainstorming. Create a team environment providing a 360-degree view of the client and their goals allowing multi-generational and niche expertise to add perspective.
Integrate marketing, media relations, technology and the practice of law into one big think tank of solutions. Tear down the walls between staff and attorneys and bring real-life experience to the table.
Create an environment that lets people be themselves, one that creates social engagement outside of the client need, one where work and life intersect creating community and inspiring greatness.
By the way, our young lawyer used to work at a midsize firm in New York City. The attorneys at the firm make great money, but they work long hours and most of the client work is led by partners that should have retired years ago. Though she is passionate about practicing law and helping others, she found that working under these old-school conditions stifled her creativity and ability to learn and grow. She now “works to make a life, not a living,” the mission statement of WeWork and an aspiration for all of our futures.