I wrote yesterday about the value of personal contact in a legal world dominated by fast communication that is mostly high-tech, not high-touch. Patrick Lamb was kind enough to pick up on this topic and offer that his firm’s client surveys show that clients appreciate lawyers who care enough to look them in the eye from time-to-time.
Today, a few thoughts about what this may mean for office location and space design for the forward-looking law firm.
First, I need to add an assumption to the “clients appreciate face time” one: most face-to-face contact is at the client’s place of business (or perhaps at some other location like a court). My informal sampling of GCs indicates that less than 25% of personal meetings with lawyers are at the lawyer’s office. The main reasons for such visits are for things like deposition prep or to negotiate or close a transaction. Hardly the time (or place) for asking a client some open-ended questions and listening.
If we accept that lawyers need to spend more time with clients and clients rarely visit their law firm’s offices, a question pops up: why do most firms in large cities persist in putting all their people in pricey high-rise space under long-term leases?
Here are a few of the reasons offered (and my response):
— Clients are impressed. (But they never visit! And if they do, they understand why they just got their notice of a rate increase in 2006).
— Partners deserve the prestige attached to tony addresses. (And how late in each year does that partner’s income statement go green?)
— Associates see it as a bullish sign of the firm’s future. (What is the new billable hour target?)
— Recruits factor location into their decision on which firm to join. (Ever try expanding your law school recruiting universe beyond the Top 10?)
— Staff likes the excitement and “halo effect” of a great address. (Right. And how much does it cost them to park or commute?)
Some large firms in large cities have partly addressed this issue by putting back-office staff in lower cost areas nearby (or even offshore). What the next step may be is for firms to have a main location in a city (but with less space and less “cachet”), and some satellite locations in suburbs where the rents may be cheaper and staff commutes would be shorter. Or just bite the bullett and allow some lawyers to telecommute. If you don’t have an hour long commute each way to work, perhaps you have a little more time for maintaining balance–or even the occasional client visit.
But wait! I thought yesterday we found that telecommuting was so yesterday? You need face-to-face interaction in the firms just as much as you need it for clients, right?
And you do–but I’d wager that on many days lawyers who are on the same floor of a large-footprint building on Fifth Avenue communicate mostly by email anyway. The firm could have a weekly practice-group meeting on one day and a skills development meeting later in the week Both 60 minutes or so. Then a large room of smaller office spaces that provide laptop hookup and phone access. These offices could spur interaction among lawyers and you wouldn’t need a dedicated office for everyone, because of vacations and travel. And the legal tech vendors who have sold the virtues of investing in digitizing files and firm records finally have a legitimate chance at providing some payback.
I’m sure I don’t understand all the intricacies of space selection and design of the modern law firm. But when I see firms jockeying for a new “signature” building, and later submitting their interior design to magazines for their annual awards, I know one thing: I’ve never retained a firm on the basis of its offices. And I have to think that the overhead costs inherent in the current space model are a big driver of higher rates and higher billable hour quotas. And I have decided against retaining more than one firm because of these factors.
Tomorrow, I’ll close out the year by stepping back from face and place and provide a GC-eye view of what lawyers do instead of client visits. A preview: It’s typically called legal marketing or client development–and it ain’t either of ’em.