As technology becomes more widespread and workplace flexibility more essential to attracting high-caliber talent, law firms increasingly are adopting telecommuting and office-sharing arrangements. For those firms that have embraced telecommuting policies for attorneys, the past few years have been ones of experimentation and evaluation.
Panitch Schwarze Belisario & Nadel is nearly two years into fully implementing telecommuting and office sharing policies. In 2018, Law Practice Today published an article about our initial efforts, and a lot of people have asked us how it’s been going since. The answer is simple: better than expected.
The Evolving Law Firm Workplace
Our intellectual property law firm moved into a smaller office space in Philadelphia in 2017. We were able to do so because we had set up a telecommuting action plan beforehand. This plan spelled out how the office would be run to ensure flexibility for the attorneys, efficiency in the office, and maximum value for our clients.
Attorneys who wanted to work remotely were asked to pick a schedule and share an office with someone who had an opposite schedule. Firm administrators would have assigned the office mates if needed, but that ended up not being necessary. Our attorneys talked amongst themselves to find a suitable office mate and to agree upon a schedule that suited them and the firm.
For example, our biotech attorneys have weekly meetings on Monday, so they all come into the office on Mondays and Wednesdays. They share offices with attorneys who come in on Tuesdays and Thursdays. We have found that having attorneys set regularly scheduled office time on either Mondays/Wednesdays or Tuesdays/Thursdays works best. A consistent schedule enables everyone in the office to know when to expect certain people in the office, improving communication and facilitating scheduling.
When we were building out our new space, we made sure to create a few “hotel” offices. These workspaces can be reserved for use by visiting attorneys or if an attorney needs to come into the office on a day they normally would be scheduled to work remotely. We use a simple Outlook calendar to coordinate schedules for our visiting offices. The entire staff has access to the calendar so they can see what is available and can reserve an office themselves. We rarely run into issues where everyone is in the office. If no visiting office is available, typically another attorney is out, or, if needed, we have plenty of conference room space.
We have not had any issues with personal items. The offices have one corkboard, some people have family photos, but all are appropriate. In most offices, people have their own wireless keyboards and mice so they can put them away in their credenza when they are done. We made sure to get dual-sided credenzas so each attorney has a personal space in which to lock things away. There is a shared small credenza for general office supplies.
Each attorney has a labeled “in-bin” for mail and paper items, so nothing is ever left in view on the desk for their office-mate to open accidentally. Adopting paperless practices also has reduced this possibility.
Technology Drives Change
This entire office realignment depends upon technology. Everyone has firm-issued laptops, but with newer models coming out and docking stations changing along with those newer models, we ordered universal docking stations for the shared offices. This way, any attorney can sit in any office and simply plug in their laptop and be ready to work. We no longer need to worry about the ever-changing docking stations.
The shared offices are equipped with one physical phone, which has extension numbers for both attorneys. This feature was available to us through our phone service provider. Some attorneys also use the Comcast Phone app, which allows them to use their office number to receive and make calls on their personal phone. This has been a savior for us when attorneys are working remotely. Staff in the office don’t have to search for cell phone numbers, they can just dial the attorney’s office extension and reach them directly on their cell.
We also use Microsoft Teams to collaborate better. For example, Microsoft Teams allows users to send an instant message to anyone within the firm, and our favorite feature is the sharing of screens. If an attorney is having a tech issue from home, they can share their screen with our help desk through Teams and get help to fix the issue. If associates want to review their work with a partner, they can share their screen. Teams allows multiple people to mark up documents together, virtually.
For meetings, we have top-of-the-line audio-visual equipment in our conference rooms and use Zoom so attorneys can call and video in for meetings. They can experience the meetings (minus the lunch and snacks, of course) from their home office.
When new attorneys join the firm, we have them work in the office regularly for a few months before starting to telecommute. This helps them acclimate to the firm and become trained on firm policies and procedures. Once they are fully incorporated into the office and its culture, they can pick a telecommuting schedule and we will assign them a shared office.
For many law firms, this kind of workplace flexibility is new, so of course, we experienced some bumps along the way. However, we have used each one of those challenges to further refine and update our telecommuting policies. Today, we can say with confidence that evolving into a telecommuting/shared workspace operation has been the right choice for us.
About the Author
Krista Hart is the firm administrator at Panitch Schwarze Belisario & Nadel, LLP, an intellectual property boutique firm in Philadelphia.