How Working Remotely Helps Our Firm

Panitch Schwarze Belisario &Nadel took a series of bold steps starting this January. We moved to another building in Philadelphia (taking a lot less space than the old office) and requested our associates and patent agents to share offices. Our attorneys now work half the time at home and half in the office. Certain industries have had shared office space and work-from-home policies for quite some time, but the legal industry has just started to embrace this initiative.

When we moved earlier this year, many people mistakenly thought we were downsizing and shrinking as a firm, but really, we just became more efficient. We took approximately 40% less space, which directly translates into 40% less facilities expense. Law firms typically spend approximately 7% of their gross revenue on facilities, and we are projecting spending less than 4%, which is a tremendous cost savings for our firm.

To support the virtualization of our offices, our firm has gone paper light. Over the past year, we scanned the majority of our documents. Everything our attorneys need is electronically stored, which is critical to those people who work remotely. This movement has helped us to reduce our offsite storage expenses. All of our research, with some exceptions, is electronically stored. To further support the system, our new space does not have a file room. Our library is long gone, and we have since moved away from any paper books or periodicals.

When in the office, employees share the same desk, phone, and monitor. We provide docking stations in the office so they can easily log into our network. Each employee is provided with a laptop. We have a few collaboration rooms and visiting attorney offices so we can accommodate employees based on their need to be in the office. Employees who share offices make personal decisions on how to decorate the space, with each using a wall to hang pictures/diplomas for example. They each have a filing cabinet and an inbox. One attorney indicated that he treats the shared office as a visiting attorney office, keeping no personal items.

We prepared a work-from-home policy, which each employee reviewed, signed and returned to participate in the program. The policy includes a “home office” provision. All employees are based in our Philadelphia or Delaware offices because we did not want to have to abide by other states’ labor laws. We also wanted to make sure that employees have a dedicated and safe area in their homes to work from. Client meetings are either done in the firm’s offices or at a client’s site, but never from an employee’s home.

The work-from-home policy addresses who is responsible for what expense, and explains that all firm employment policies apply when working remotely. We hired an employment attorney to review the policy to ensure that we were compliant with all labor laws.

The employees who are splitting their time between the office and home state many advantages such as convenience, less commuting (saving time and money), and fewer distractions. However, working from home may create distractions, depending on who else is home. It is important to have a secluded area if necessary. It takes discipline. One attorney explained that you need to understand yourself. If you can work all day in your pajamas, that’s ok. But, if you need to prepare yourself like you are going into the office, then do it. Do whatever you need to do to be your most productive. When beginning to work from home, mimic what you do in the office and then you can gradually make some adjustments. When at home, be more available to your team than when you are in the office. And, the team in the office should make similar accommodations.

Not every area of practice in the legal field can provide a work-from-home policy or shared offices. Some practices are still paper heavy and require many visits to the courthouse. Because our firm is an intellectual property boutique, our employees are comfortable with electronic documents and the practice can accommodate a virtual business model. Our employees benefit from collaborating with one another via Skype and Webex. Our receptionist forwards calls to individual’s phone numbers. The employee can easily read a voicemail on his/her email or forward calls to a cell phone. By using this technology, the receptionist does not need to know who is in the office on any given day.

We are only a few months into this arrangement, but everyone is embracing it. The people who are working from home bill hours, so it will be an easy exercise to compare 2017 billed hours to 2018 billed hours, which we hope will reflect higher productivity.

We are also investigating allowing non-exempt personnel to occasionally work from home. We are drafting a different policy for those employees, but must be mindful of compliance with labor laws specific to those employees. These employees would not be sharing workstations or offices. Non-exempt work from home policies would be expressly authorized by the firm and not the employee. People in some positions obviously cannot work from home, like the receptionist.

In the near future, we expect more law firms will implement work-from-home policies and become more efficient with what they are spending on brick and mortar expenses.

About the Author

Gail Ruopp is the executive director of Panitch Schwarze Belisario & Nadel in Philadelphia. Contact her at gruopp@panitchlaw.com.

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