By Elizabeth DiNardo, Esq. & Kimberly Gomlak, MBA | Counsel Financial
As the legal system continues to be subject to changes brought about by the global pandemic, many law firms are looking ahead and acknowledge that some adaptations are here to stay. We explore how contingent-fee law firms have navigated the current state of the legal system and their outlook moving forward.
Having surpassed the one-year mark of COVID-19 regulations and closures impacting the court system, almost every firm has modified their operations over the last year and a half. The fate of the traditional office environment remains to be seen. Though some law firms have opened their workplaces on a limited basis and courts have resumed varying levels of activity, many are still uncertain as to what the office dynamic will be once the preventative health and safety measures associated with COVID-19 are fully lifted.
Brick-and-mortar office space has historically been deemed a necessity—especially in the field of law. Law practices now may find that their attorneys and staff can, and have been, as productive if not more so, working from home. Though the need for a centralized, physical office location may never become totally obsolete, firms may be able to reduce the square footage necessary to maintain a successful practice, thereby reducing a significant law firm expense.
Colliers International reported that as of the summer of 2019, the average gross rent per square foot of office space leased by law firms had risen by 6.5% as compared to data from 2017. Examples given in the 2019 Law Firm Service Report regarding gross rent per square foot in North America ranged from $25.10/sq. ft. in Birmingham, Alabama to $88.50/sq. ft. in New York City.
We recently spoke with Hunter Linville, Esq. about how his firm Linville Law Group operates—and has since well before the pandemic hit—a successful remote law firm.
“I started Linville Law Group in July of 2019 and right away started looking at office space. However, while I was looking, I was working from my house and my home sort of became the center of operations for the firm. As I hired new people, we worked in my home office for a few days and then they worked independently from their homes. We continued to get together once weekly to plan and discuss our projects, but I felt our communication was just as good on the days we were not physically working in the same space, and the visibility of our work was better than I had ever experienced.
As many attorneys are aware, office space is a big commitment and I hadn’t seen anything that I really liked. I wasn’t going to rent an office just for the sake of it when our current system was working. In the end, I talked with my team and it became apparent that people were happy and productive working from home, so I decided not to disrupt what we had. There are a lot of upsides to working in an office setting—it’s great seeing people and having that personal interaction—but what I think a lot of people are seeing now that most people are still working from home is that there are some downsides to traditional offices. I’m not saying that my firm will never go back to a traditional office setting, but until I see that this current system isn’t working, we are going to stick with a remote work setting.”
Company culture went from just a “buzzword” to a virtue that employees value substantially over the past decade. With the transition to remote work, maintaining company culture has never been more imperative. As firms navigate moving forward in a post-pandemic environment, flexibility is likely to become an expectation.
Stringent work schedules may not be as practical as they were in the past. Many have recognized that family and other obligations can be managed while still maintaining a full workload by being productive before or after hours. Law firms will need to stay ahead of the “new” perception of the “work day” as people slowly return to the office.
Kristy Arevalo, Esq. of McCune Wright Arevalo, LLP discusses how her firm is looking ahead as the country works toward reopening, and what she sees as COVID-related adaptations that may become permanent.
“COVID has massively changed my personal work schedule. Looking back, I was traveling for work, if not every week, then every other week, crisscrossing the country for depositions, meetings and court appearances. To be honest, I was almost reaching a burn out point with the constant travel and intense work. After almost a year of no travel, and relying on virtual methods for meetings and depositions, it’s amazing to me all the time that was wasted on airplanes and in airports.
In this age, where everything can be done online so easily you have to stop and think, why do we have to follow this antiquated routine of going into an office for a set time? I think if you’re hiring quality people and you can trust them, why not let them work from home with a more flexible schedule? When people are working from home, and I know I’ve seen this with myself, they are more focused when they are working because the typical distractions of the office setting aren’t there, like ringing phones and people stopping in to chat or ask a question.
I think most people will apply a hybrid method as things calm down over time. I think people will start traveling more and courts will start demanding in-person appearances again. However, I do think that Zoom depositions will be here to stay and that people will not be returning to the same level of travel as before because it’s truly unnecessary.
For our firm, I think once everything gets back to more “normal,” we will be implementing a hybrid policy where we are giving people the option of working from home a few days a week and coming into the office the other days.”
Similar to the expectation of a physical office space, most firms have traditionally hired associates and staff either in their local area, or those who were willing to relocate.
Working remotely has opened many firms up to the idea of expanding their search for the best and the brightest. Forward-thinking firms may take on partners residing in different states or employ new associates or clerks from across the country. Having tackled the obstacle of managing teams that can’t be physically present in one place allows for much greater flexibility in building a strong team.
Ms. Arevalo adds, “After seeing how well our team works remotely, we have been able to take on new attorneys who live outside our geographic area who will continue to mainly work remotely even after the pandemic is over. So, before the pandemic, we really wouldn’t consider hiring someone who lived in another city or who lived too far away from the office unless they were willing to relocate. Now because working remotely is an option, we have a much larger talent pool to hire from.”
Similarly, Mr. Linville states, “I think being remote has allowed me to look beyond geographical parameters for team members. I live in Atlanta where for most people traffic is an obstacle at the start of each day, so if I was running a traditional firm with a central office space, I would have to consider people’s commute time during the hiring process. That’s not a concern with a remote office—I can hire the right people that fit our firm and they can live anywhere in the country.”
Even with its advantages, remote work comes with numerous challenges that must be managed in order for a firm to maintain a seamless working environment. One of the biggest hurdles can be communication. With the lack of in-person interaction, communication within a law firm, and within the legal system as a whole, has become a task in and of itself. Hunter Linville shares his thoughts on this.
“I think it’s easy to feel isolated working from home and to feel less involved with our coworkers. To be successful working remotely, a team needs excellent communication. The success of any project starts and ends with precise articulation and accurate interpretation of our plan of attack, so we rely heavily on maintaining real-time technical documentation.
Like everyone these days, we utilize video conferencing as much as we can in order to get that much-needed face time with each other. We start each morning with a short 10-minute meeting to say hello and get visibility on any roadblocks. This gives everyone the opportunity to see what their co-workers are focused on and offer help if possible, and it creates a shared understanding of what the firm as a whole is working towards. By keeping everyone informed, it becomes easier to shift people from one project to another when necessary, because everyone has a general idea of the facts of each project and what we are trying to accomplish.
We communicate regularly, and everyone is encouraged to share their ideas, interests and humor. Our culture is full of unique, creative individuals and they keep me and others in the organization feeling fresh and energized.”
Despite the obstacles, there also exist silver linings. Kristy Arevalo explains how the changes have imparted a positive impact on her associates.
“What’s really been interesting for me is that we hired a new associate while we’ve been remote and initially, I worried a little bit about how I was going to be able to mentor her and help her learn without being in the same office together. So, I told her to jump on any Zoom depositions I have and just observe. Six months into her employment, she has told me that she learned so much by observing me and, had this been before COVID, she never would have had the opportunity to be involved in meetings and depositions with me because I would have been in another state taking them.”
It remains to be seen to what extent the global pandemic will permanently alter the concept of a plaintiffs’ law firm. Almost certainly, there will be positive impacts that arise from this difficult circumstance facing the entire world. For attorneys, every day presents a new opportunity to redefine the contingent-fee law firm and continued change is likely to be seen.