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Workplace Solutions for an Evolving Legal Practice

In a field largely driven by tradition and long-established practices, changes in the economy and professional climate have created gaps between the way things are done and clients’ expectations. Many conventional aspects of law practices are being challenged and overhauled; how can the legal workplace adapt?  

Below are eight major trends facing legal offices, and the ways the physical work environment can help manage the changes to come.

1. Specialization: Tailoring services, externally and internally

Thanks to our increasingly customized way of life, the proliferation and ease of online marketing and shopping for services, and the importance of personal relationships – both “real” and “online” , specialization is becoming a key part of the success of law firms and practitioners alike. Larger firms’ specialized departments are becoming more unique from one another, not only in practice area but in culture and personality as well.   The Venture law group attracts talent and uses resources different from the Trusts & Estates and Litigation departments. Whether they are looking to join a large or small firm, the best and brightest young lawyers will seek out places of employment that recognize and make office design choices that reflect their personality and specific professional niche. Keeping lawyers and support staff productive and comfortable today requires law firm management to pay attention to workspace design.

2. Path to Partnership: New models for success

The established trajectory of a legal professional includes moving from a junior lawyer up to partner status. However, globalization and automation of legal services and the recent economic downturn are limiting the opportunities for employees to complete this path, which has been in place for decades. The established model, the “up or out approach,” has left thousands of qualified lawyers wondering where their careers are headed. Particularly at large firms, the recession prompted a reduction in hiring, meaning that recent law school graduates had difficulty finding entry-level positions, while current employees found it harder to move up the ladder. To compensate for these changes, some firms have introduced new “quasi-partnerships,” and more and more lawyers are opting not to pursue the ultimate goal of partner. According to the Canadian Bar Association, “flexibility, rather than tradition, will rule this ancient institution from now on.” Still, many employed in the legal profession, particularly younger lawyers who feel that their expectations do not align with the current options for a path to partnership, will feel compelled to leave their firm if they do not perceive the possibility of substantial career advancement.

3. Education and Training: Creating forever learners

The educational format followed by most law schools is facing a wave of criticism for its lack of “real-world” preparation. Detractors claim that law students are not being taught “learning outcomes” or “lawyer competencies”; in other words, how they can apply their education to practice. The transition between law school and practice is also considered too meager. Formal training programs, particularly those provided by employers, are rare, expensive, and/or ineffective. In addition, the current economic model saddles law school graduates with enormous debt, making the system seem increasingly unsustainable. The New York State Bar Association Task Force recommends a more collaborative approach to education and training, requiring partnership between law schools, employers, and the bar to better prepare law students and recent graduates to what they will face in the workforce. The next step towards stronger professional development is increased communication and cooperation between these parties. Once firms develop better training programs and policies for young lawyers, it will be easier to speed up the process of advancement (possibly to partnership) for new hires, which will encourage loyalty. This would make the training process more efficient, as young lawyers will be more quickly integrated into the firm’s practice and culture and less likely to leave, preventing repeat training costs for newer hires.

4. Diversity: Internal diversity drives better business

Given the client-focused nature of the law profession, it is important to cater to the needs and desires of clients, and to relate to them. Representing people of all backgrounds is crucial in a global economy, and as more types of employees enter the workforce. A diverse firm has a competitive edge over others that do not offer varied viewpoints from their employees. As the Canadian Bar Association points out, diversity is about more than race, gender, and ethnicity; it also extends to "background, age and life experience." Building a staff with whom clients can identify and feel comfortable is crucial to bringing in new business and maintaining current relationships. Young lawyers who are entering the profession expect a greater degree of diversity than past generations may have, as do the growing numbers of women and minorities coming into the legal workplace. Diversity among staff also means more flexibility in work styles and the expectation of more options available within the workplace culture and physical environment.

5. Work-Life Balance: Making time for play

Working towards greater diversity and the retention of new talent will also require addressing the growing importance of maintaining a balance between work and personal life, particularly for women and for the younger generation entering the workforce. Although law has traditionally been seen as a demanding profession that often takes precedence over personal life, a number of social and economic trends are making it harder for lawyers to accept this dynamic. For example, the number of double-earner families is increasing, with both partners working away from the home. As older generations are living longer, many working adults are now caretakers to both their parents and their children, the demands of family care are putting stress on professional lives. Mobile technologies have brought work into off hours, but it can also facilitate different workplace layouts, organizational culture changes, and mobile work options. Although some firms may be resistant to making allowances for employees' personal lives, those that do actually report more profitability. Benefits to adopting more flexible policies include reduced expenses, enhanced revenue, minimized risk, and of course happier employees. 

6. Technology: Platform for Business

The amount of technology available to law firms today, and the rate at which it is developing in general, can be overwhelming and hard to adapt for professional use. Many firms take a piecemeal approach to adopting new technologies, taking on developments as needed rather than evaluating and overhauling their systems as a whole, ultimately negatively impacting efficiency. Lawyers often delegate to technology professionals, but it is important that they as users understand and help implement new technologies. Tools like blogs and social networking should be more integrated into a full workflow system for increased efficiency and adaptability. The legal industry can look to others that have successfully integrated technological systems into their workplaces, such as the financial industry, for inspiration.

7. Speed of information, confidentiality and public: Ever changing

The increased use of technology has been met with some suspicion and caution in the legal industry, due in large part to the issue of confidentiality. During the early introduction of workplace technology, it was still believed that paper was a superior medium to electronic storage for sensitive information. Today, however, that conviction has essentially been reversed, and it is crucial to consider the speed at which information travels now and reconcile it with attitudes toward confidentiality. Lawyers are duty-bound to protect their clients and their best interests, which cannot be forgotten. However, they can still retain confidentiality with the use of technology - again, this is an area in which the financial industry has proven very adaptable. Some degree of transparency, with respect to client needs, of course, in media and public relations can help create a trustworthy atmosphere around a legal firm, part of which involves incorporating technology.

8. Business Models and Profitability: Workplace impacts the bottom line

Of course, the bottom line to all of these emerging trends is profit. How can a firm capitalize on these trends and update their workplaces to address them while boosting profitability? In fact, legal finances themselves are undergoing a major change. The billable hour has long been the standard measure of value for lawyer-client relationships and transactions, but in recent years, the rise of technology and access to information have weakened the trust between attorney and client that was once inherent. Clients have more options for independent research and second opinions, undercutting the authority previously held by lawyers as sole advisors. The encroachment of technology into our lives outside business hours due to smartphones and expectations for constant communication means that billable hours spill over into time that would traditionally be separate from work. In conjunction with the influx of Generation Y into the law profession, who frequently affirm a desire for work-life balance, this trend makes the billable hour seem increasingly obsolete. Many firms are trying out alternative financing arrangements (AFAs) including project-based, fixed-fee, and result-based to decrease fees.

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