THE BLOG
09/15/2014 05:19 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Lawyers Without Offices

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Photo courtesy Orrick

I was impressed on a recent visit to the Orrick law firm to see its "Beta" office. At its Silicon Valley branch, the global enterprise is testing the type of design common with its start-up clients but rare within its profession: It has put attorneys, paralegals, and staff in an open space without private rooms.

The innovation shows the strength of cultural trends. While the increasing importance of technology makes a screen the most meaningful real estate for anyone who makes a living by their wits, the point of joining with colleagues in a shared enterprise is the value of teamwork. The scale of a law firm is its strength, as compared to a solo practitioner or a group that is only splitting up rent.

The firm explains that Studios Architecture set up work stations with a "kit of parts" that includes an electric height-adjustable desk; a credenza that doubles as additional seating; and individual files. They also arranged conference rooms around the perimeter and phone rooms for privileged conversations -- a firm such as Orrick boasts the resources to have at the ready state-of-the-art headsets and to install hushers.

I have seen cubicle farms and the improved iterations of the same, South of Market where entrepreneurs are changing communications, commerce, and basically everything. In the funky, formerly industrial buildings, you can see people interacting with their co-workers through "robotic telepresence."

Open floor plans, however, are not associated with prestigious law firms, especially those where average partner compensation is well into the seven figures. But the cost of leases compels any manager to consider alternatives to paying for offices that sit empty while the occupants are offsite. The firm chairman is even participating in the experiment. A spokesperson reports that on any given day half of the personnel are not present anyway.

I meet with many alumni of my law school. It's great to see how they are adapting. Some have joined virtual law firms. Others are contractors or employ them. They are tinkering with how they bill, how they divide profits, even the services they offer.

The Orrick firm has been a leader in creating new types of employment. Based in the San Francisco Bay Area, it opened an outpost in West Virginia to achieve greater efficiency in backroom functions as well as commodity-level tasks. Among the oldest companies in the city, it was renowned for its municipal bond department -- not a flashy specialty. But it was early within BigLaw to brand itself, adopting a distinctive green "O" as its logo.

Now lawyers are changing in concrete terms. Their workplaces reflect their understanding that someone else has to pay for everything.

Even the fanciest law firms realize they have to transform themselves. That should inform all members of the bar about the dynamics of the marketplace.