The legal profession has been gradually reshaped in recent years. The push to adapt to a changing business environment and deliver services in more efficient and cost-effective ways was already underway, but gained a heightened sense of urgency during the Great Recession.
The ingrained, and sometimes outdated, practices of the traditional law office have evolved into something that looks much more like any modern business today.
Robert Half Legal’s Future Law Office project provides an in-depth look at these and other trends and developments. The latest report, The Evolving Legal Profession and Emerging Workforce of Tomorrow, examines efforts by law firms and corporate legal departments to navigate and manage the new realities of today’s business environment.
Among the trends explored in the report are how advances in technology, an increasingly mobile workforce and the “Millennial effect” have combined to hasten changes in the legal industry.
Technology Changes Everything
Much of the evolution that has taken place in the legal field could not have happened without the technological advances of the past couple of decades. Web-based tools have improved client communication and the delivery of legal services. Some of the most commonly used technologies in today’s law offices include e-filing systems, meeting or audio-conferencing tools, document storage sites, collaborative or information-sharing sites and client portals or extranets.
In addition, the impact of wireless networks and mobile communication devices has been significant, along with the influx of more members of Generation Y into the workplace. Millennials’ natural affinity for technology has undoubtedly contributed to the adoption of cutting-edge tools by law offices, as well as helping to foster greater collaboration and information sharing at work.
The ‘Millennial Effect’
This younger generation of workers is making its mark on the legal workforce in other ways. They are increasingly vocal about what they want in the workplace, including more flexible hours and the ability to work when and wherever they feel most productive. This has helped to usher in positive changes for all legal professionals.
In past years, for instance, ambitious law firm associates were expected to work long hours in the office, often from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. and some weekends, in an effort to show one’s commitment. Now, Gen Y professionals are pushing a new model: One in which they work just as hard, but not necessarily in the office, nor do they always keep standard schedules. They’re insisting on keeping more flexible hours, including some from home or the local coffee shop. This new generation of professionals is trying to send a message that they’re equally as committed as earlier generations of workers and are still logging long hours, but they don’t feel a need to be tethered to a physical desk in the office.
Of course, Millennial professionals are not alone in their desire to stay connected to the office virtually. This “wherever working” trend is prevalent in the businesses that law firms interact with and may be contributing to the pressure for law firms to adopt similar practices. Moreover, if law firms aren’t willing to adapt to new modes of working, they risk losing both talented legal professionals and possibly progressive clients as well.
Mobility and the Physical Office
These trends also are having an impact on the physical space of legal workplaces. The office footprint of many law firms is shrinking. With mobile devices and wireless networks enabling legal professionals to work remotely from any location, law firms are reducing the size of their offices, reconfiguring workspaces and becoming more creative with design. The number of traditional offices is being reduced in many cases in favor of more open workspaces that enhance collaboration and teamwork.
One law firm featured in our Future Law Office report has Wi-Fi in all its offices so that employees can use their laptops without plugging in, which it finds encourages more informal interactions and better communication among colleagues.
Law firms also are enhancing common spaces to improve the office experience for both employees and clients. This includes simplifying the reception area, moving conference rooms near reception, and providing services, such as a visitors’ lounge, catering kitchen and business center.
What’s next on the horizon as law offices continue to reflect the influences of technology and a changing workforce? Staffing models may also be impacted by the trend toward greater mobility and flexibility in the legal workplace. “Mobile support teams” are likely to take hold. These are groups of highly skilled legal professionals who go from engagement to engagement to work on substantive matters in a cost-effective manner.
These trends reflect the legal profession’s efforts to become ever more nimble and responsive to client needs — wherever they may be. As law firms and corporate legal departments realize, their future success depends largely on their ability to adapt to a changing business landscape, even when it conflicts with what has typically been the professional norm in the legal field.
For more information about Robert Half Legal’s ongoing Future Law Office research project, visit www.futurelawoffice.com.
Charles A. Volkert is executive director of Robert Half Legal, a leading staffing service specializing in the placement of attorneys, paralegals, legal administrators and other legal professionals with law firms and corporate legal departments. Based in Menlo Park, Calif., Robert Half Legal has offices in major cities throughout the United States and Canada.