Are Brick-and-Mortar Law Offices Going Extinct?

Don't cancel your lease just yet.

Even though working remotely has become the new normal, that doesn’t mean you should plan to eliminate or downsize your physical office.

Brick-and-mortar law firms will make a comeback – and likely a healthy one – according to industry insiders. But it will take some time. And when the dust settles, law offices will look and function differently.

“Even before the pandemic pushed the world’s economy toward laptops and dining room tables, physical offices were falling out of fashion in the business world,” writes attorney and law firm CEO James Goodnow. “Yet I don’t expect the legal real estate market to vanish overnight. There are at least two strong reasons for firms to maintain at least some dedicated office space: collaboration and clients.”

Goodnow, author of the business best-seller Motivating Millennials, recently wrote an article for Above the Law titled “What’s the Future of Brick-and-Mortar Law Offices?” Following are some highlights from that piece.

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There’s no going back. “Law firm leadership expecting everyone to return to the traditional 50 hours in the office a week will likely find resistance to that notion now that the pandemic is proving we can get the jobs done in our spare rooms and guest houses,” says Goodnow. “No one loves spending time on a commute that could instead be spent on loved ones, personal improvement, extra billing, or just getting a few more winks of sleep. There’s also something nourishing for the soul about nailing a court argument or finalizing an eight-figure negotiation while wearing Ugg slippers.”

The dollars-and-cents argument. “As office leases come up and firms are evaluating their next move, the lure of saving money on rent has to be strong. Real estate is usually the second-biggest line item on a firm’s expense sheet after personnel. Every dollar saved there is another dollar left over at the end-of-year distribution to the partnership.”

Office space is more essential for some firms than others. “Some practices can’t operate on a laptop and cellphone basis as well as others,” says Goodnow. “Litigators sometimes still need to store and review physical documents and evidence. Many mediators still prefer conference rooms to Zoom breakout rooms for negotiations. Transactional attorneys may find that deals get closed on better terms in person without Microsoft Teams’ lag time and disconnections. Having dedicated space on hand to meet those needs makes sense.”

Some clients want to come to your office. “For better or worse, there also remains a subset of clients — albeit a decreasing one — that may still be attracted to the shiny objects of a fancy law firm. There are those who want to know by the pile of the carpet or the glint of the lobby sculpture that the firm they’re looking to hire is smart, strong, and expensive enough to be worth their time. Some decisions on whether to hire a law firm may still get made when the elevator dings and the client steps out into the reception area. It may seem like empty theater, but if it matters to some clients, it’s something we need to take seriously.”

Unnecessary luxury may be history. “What looks less essential with each passing day are the luxe private attorney offices that so many of us associate with the basic concept of being an attorney. It’s here that I see the biggest revisions to the traditional law firm blueprint. Some firms may abandon offices altogether in favor of working from home, or move to hoteling concepts like the Big Four. Others may give their attorneys the option of paying out of their own pockets for office space and furniture. Still others may have offices that are half the size of their current footprint. I expect to see experimentation in office solutions, and ultimately far more bespoke, cost-efficient models of officing in the legal industry than anything we’ve had in past decades.”

Upgrading is an option. “I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the savings from downsizing on attorney offices isn’t poured back into upgrading the spaces that remain,” says Goodnow. “This is especially true if the larger market demand for commercial real estate goes down, driving down prices. Firms looking to reduce their attorney offices but keep their personnel happy might experiment with lounges, coffee house-like spaces, quiet spaces, nursing rooms, and other common goods that provide community and enjoyment in far more cost-effective ways.”

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