Law Firms Ditching ‘Trophy’ Offices

COVID 19 has changed the way law firms work. It has shown the potential of remote working and turned attention away from the expensive statement offices of the past.

A statue representing the scales of justice is seen on the roof of the Old Bailey courts in central London, January 26, 2007. British Prime Minister Tony Blair's ruling Labour Party faced new embarrassment over law and order on Friday after a judge freed a convicted paedophile in part because the government had warned the prisons were full. REUTERS/Toby Melville (BRITAIN)

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LONDON (Within The Law) - This time last year, a group of law firms were upping stick and spending millions on new plush offices. The intention was to impress clients and lure the best graduates with their shiny new digs. At the time this seemed part of a new trend, but today the opposite is happening. The pandemic has taught law firms that there is more to life than a glitzy office. 

Instead, according to predictions from a number of top firms, they are looking to ditch the space, and rely on remote working. As reported in the Financial Times, Norton Rose Fulbright, DWF and Fieldfisher have projected a reduction in office space of between 30% and 50%. 

Their prediction comes against a backdrop in which law firms are grasping remote working with both hands. In November Taylor Wessing switched to a remote working model. Staff will be allowed to work from home between 20% and 50% of the time. 

In August, Linklaters decided to allow its staff to decide where and when they worked. Under their new proposals, employees would be allowed to work up to 50% from home as long as they communicated their decision to their superiors.

In July, Dentons closed two of its offices in Aberdeen and Watford shifting all employees to remote working. However, they will be able to use the firm’s two remaining offices in Milton Keynes and Edinburgh when they need to. 

The shift to working from home has been somewhat forced on the legal sector thanks to the pandemic. However, many have found the move surprisingly beneficial. Concerns about the need for face-to-face contact, and handling documents on-site evaporated as lawyers proved they could function perfectly well remotely. 

As the UK began (prematurely as it turns out) relaxing restrictions, many law firms decided they were happy the way things were. What was initially intended to be a temporary fix of remote working became the norm with many keeping to the same schedules after the pandemic. 

Many other firms who had been planning big office move decided to hold fire. Slaughter & May recently announced they would be abandoning their search for new offices as they renewed their lease for another ten years at One Bunhill Row. 

Cooley extended its lease at Moorgate after the pandemic delayed its plans to move to 22 Bishopsgate. 

This new trend will come as bad news to the property sector. Law office moves are some of the highest value deals going. Linklaters, for example, says its office move to 20 Ropemaker Street in the City will cost between £308m and £445m on lease payments over a 20-year period. 

With the pandemic putting a spanner in what had been expected to be a busy year for office moves, property owners will be feeling the pain. Instead, law firms are looking to downsize. If top firms do cut floor space by as much as 50% this could create quite a headache for landlords. 

Many may find themselves forced to accept renewed long-term leases with a much smaller footprint. 

Virtual reality 

The main motivation behind this move is money. DWF says it will safe approximately £600,000 on its plans to cut floor space in half at many locations. Office space is expensive and many of the country’s top firms occupy some of the most expensive real estate in the city. 

With more and more of their staff being able to work from home, they can slim down spending considerably. 

However, it is also being driven by people. Staff say they want the flexibility to work from home. Homeworking might have been born out of necessity, but the pandemic has shown what can be possible. 

By working from home, lawyers can become more productive while maintaining a positive work/life balance. For many high-flying lawyers, this can be impossible. They spend hours commuting each day and regularly stay at the office late. 

If they can do more of their work from home, they can free up time and money which would otherwise have been spent travelling and split their focus on work and family. 

It is a fresh approach to the law. It’s one which embraces remote collaboration and changes what people expect from law firms. 

The statement trophy office now seems outdated. Firms will rely less on shiny high-value premises to impress clients. The best talent will no longer be drawn by the prospect of an office with its own swimming pool as much as by a firm which offers flexible work patterns. 

When it comes to the future of working patterns in the law, flexibility will be very much the name of the game. 

(Written by Tom Cropper, edited by Klaudia Fior)

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