Returning to the office: Five key questions for non-profit law firms

July 2, 2021 – In the coming months, many non-profit law firms will face the Herculean task of planning for a return to their pre-Covid work norms as, with any luck, Covid-19 recedes into history. But just as Hercules faced his own 12 labors, non-profit law firms will have to address fundamental questions about how lawyers work in the post-Covid era. Here, I attempt to classify these questions and offer some answers.

What is legal work? In most forms of legal work, the workplace is most often structured like a factory, with employees working at hourly rates and clocking in and out. Instead of widgets, lawyers produce work-product: memos, contracts, legal briefs, etc.

The norm is that lawyers need to show up to the workplace to make their legal widgets. A senior attorney leads several juniors and paralegals, organized on an assembly line, with managers and workers.

Tied to this brutal system — at least in big law — are the perks: high salaries, free meals, Ubers to get home, and prime offices with views in fancy neighborhoods in big cities. Patrick J. Schiltz, “On Being a Happy, Healthy, and Ethical Member of an Unhappy, Unhealthy, and Unethical Profession,” Vanderbilt Law Review, Vol. 52, Iss. 4 (1999). In non-profit law firms, the same top-down models are in use, but with fewer perks. Frederick Taylor would be proud.

This model is as anachronistic as it is disliked by many lawyers. It originates from a time of paper-pushing corporate offices, where junior lawyers research in law libraries, dictate documents to stenographers, print out, collate, and sort them, and have them served by process servers.

Many non-profit law firms were built on this corporate model, which has been in the final stages of obsolescence for years.

Today, legal work is the transmission of information in the form of data. It is communication with clients, between teammates, and from adversaries. Like magic, this transmission occurs over the air, through space, and directly from personal device to personal device.

How has technology changed legal work? After Covid, traditional work models faced added scrutiny. We now rely on technology, like Zoom, Teams, cloud-based documents, email, and Slack to get our work done. We lost the human interactions of office life, but we gained a semi-permanent tether to our teams through cyberspace.

This new model also liberated many lawyers from commuting to work or to physical meetings. It also freed them of having to wear suits (and get them cleaned) and increased their flexibility about how and when to work. Lawyers could practice self-care, by doing yoga, for instance, as a break during normal work hours. Our days are now planned by us, as we see best, around our work obligations.

Collaboration and office culture can be replicated without physical offices. Zoom, Slack, and other platforms have given teams the flexibility to meet more often and more immediately than they could pre-Covid. These meetings can be shorter, with more specific agendas to tackle problems. Also, law firms can subsidize data plans for mobile devices, offer WiFi hotspots, and provide laptops or tablets to facilitate remote working. Even the most advanced and expensive tech is still cheaper than renting office space in places like downtown Manhattan.

Law firms that embrace technological change and abandon traditional office-based hierarchies will attract more talented and more productive workers, who will also contribute to the firm for longer periods of time. In fact, remote-working saves money for companies and increases productivity of workers. Jason Wingard, “Remote Working: How to Succeed Over the Long Term,” Forbes, May 22, 2020.

Today’s law firms transmit digital packets of information over the Internet. This can happen from an office in an office tower near Wall Street or from an iPhone. As Covid-19 forced many law firms to close their physical offices, virtual work became the preferred norm. Non-profit law firms must recognize that this is now how legal work is done.

How do we access the courts in the post-Covid era? The legal system was already ripe for change. Even the courts are changing, with some scholars asking whether courts are a physical place or a service. Richard Susskind, “Online Courts and the Future of Justice,” Oxford University Press (2019). If courts are a service, that service may be provided in more convenient, more efficient ways.

Given the possibility of another pandemic, crowded courthouses may be infeasible because of public health issues. Virtual courts mean virtual court appearances, opening the door to remote work models.

But the digital divide must be overcome. Many low-income legal clients lack access to the Internet or the hardware to use it. Others don’t have the knowledge or experience in using tech tools.

If the courts are to embrace virtual operations, they must build the access points for every single litigant to equally access them. This may mean handing out tablets, like IPADS. It may mean expanding IT services as more people access virtual proceedings.

So what should non-profit law firms do? As non-profit law firms prepare to return to pre-Covid working models, they should consider the opportunities presented by the current reality. Some argue that Covid will “turbocharge” change in the corporate legal industry and in legal education. Mark A. Cohen, “COVID-19 Will Turbocharge Legal Industry Transformation,” Forbes, March 24, 2020.

Non-profit law firms have much to gain in the post-Covid climate. Any client-centered practice model should focus on service delivery, where and when our clients need it. Physical buildings, with set office hours, are neither cost-effective nor convenient. Non-profits in New York City for example, pay exorbitant rents for commercial office space in prime areas of the City. These areas are often the least convenient and least welcoming for clients of these non-profits.

In addition, these physical locations force workers of these non-profits to live in relative proximity to them. As a result, legal workers who are paid relatively lower wages in order to do mission-driven work must also bear a higher cost of living in expensive cities. Such forced sacrifices limit the pool of workers who seek non-profit legal jobs to only those who are privileged enough to afford to get by, or to those who are willing to make great personal sacrifices to do the work.

Remote work and “work from anywhere” models mean more doors can open to those who can succeed in non-profit law without making deep sacrifices. Workers can be more productive because they will be happier, and there will be less attrition as people don’t have to choose between their professional growth and their personal growth. Money saved on overhead, like office space, can be channeled towards tech support and salaries.

What do lawyers want? All lawyers, from recent graduates to senior partners, want job satisfaction, work-life balance, and a decent wage. It is no secret that lawyers as a group have expressed high levels of dissatisfaction with their jobs, feel little work-life balance, and are forced to live in high-cost cities where even high salaries evaporate on living expenses.

While litigators need to be in court at certain times, all other legal work can take place almost anytime and from anywhere. Transactional lawyers have fewer demands on their in-person time. Freeing up lawyers from a 9-5 routine can help non-profits offer lawyers, especially millennials, what they want most: control over their time. “The Millennial Shift: A Change in Today’s Law Firm Paradigm,” Legal Executive Institute, Thomson Reuters, Jan. 31, 2019.

Lawyers may prefer to spend time at soccer-practice with their kids rather than waiting for work to be assigned to them in the office. They may want to start families, care for aging relatives, work on self-care, or just have the freedom that many other professionals enjoy.

The traditional model has also skewed in favor of men and against women, who often must choose between career advancement or family responsibilities. This has resulted in a male-dominated legal profession, especially at the most senior levels. It can be much better, if leaders recognize that workers desire autonomy and flexibility in how they work.

In sum, even Hercules would not envy the tasks that will be required of the managers and leaders of non-profit law firms as they plan to return to work in physical spaces. But with some foresight into the nature of the work and the needs of their workers, they can make better decisions. These decisions will impact the nature of legal work for decades.

Opinions expressed are those of the author. They do not reflect the views of Reuters News, which, under the Trust Principles, is committed to integrity, independence, and freedom from bias. Westlaw Today is owned by Thomson Reuters and operates independently of Reuters News.

Sateesh Nori

Sateesh Nori is the Attorney in Charge of the Queens Neighborhood Office of The Legal Aid Society, in New York City. His Twitter handle is @sateesh_nori. The views here are his own.

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Sateesh Nori