By Mark Schocke
Have you noticed that many of the articles written about the new generation of millennial attorneys are written by an older law firm partner who is tasked with supervising millennial associates? While this perspective can have value, it is also important to consider the perspective of the young attorney seeking to make the most of their career. The hallmark of the typical millennial attorney is the ability to work efficiently and to use technology to enhance and streamline their work. As the saying goes, the key to professional success is working smarter, not harder. Using this mantra, there are certain benefits to be maximized to the advantage of all practitioners, not only those of the “millennial” generation.
The legal profession is not always known for its innovation; overall, being an attorney has not changed drastically in several centuries. Attorneys and judges still rely on common law legal precedent and historical positions of the courts, and we still use outdated phrases including “wherefore,” “comes now” and “whereas” in everyday legal briefing. Although we no longer wear robes and powdered wigs, there are still ways to further improve the efficiency of our practice.
Not long ago, legal research could be done only by reviewing volumes of reporters inside physical buildings called legal libraries. Most medium to large firms had libraries with private hard-bound collections of cases with an indexing system and secondary sources to assist in finding the correct case. However, about 15 years ago, the legal research industry shifted to resources like LexisNexis, Westlaw, and Casemaker. Now, it appears that most firms have eliminated the large libraries in favor of these online resources, and the entire process has gained efficiency.
Although legal research has become more efficient, most attorneys still work in the traditional office while sitting at a desk. However, with tools like widespread broadband access, videoconferencing and file sharing systems, it begs the question as to whether the large office footprints and office settings are truly necessary to achieve success. It seems that many attorneys can comfortably draft motions, memoranda and contracts from the comfort of their own homes and on their own schedules. Face time is becoming less critical, and efficiency is becoming much more important.
Many Indiana courts now permit telephonic attendance at court hearings, and it is only a matter of time before the courts accept attorney appearances via videoconferencing. While some attorneys may not like these developments in the practice of law, there are certain benefits of embracing virtual offices for younger and older attorneys alike.
Law firms seeking to employ talented young lawyers and support staff would do well to offer good candidates a fair compensation package along with useful benefits. One large benefit could be the flexibility to complete work assignments outside of the traditional office setting. We all take home work from time to time; however, the flexibility to work from a location of your own choosing and on your own schedule is a large benefit that is sure to attract talented attorneys and support staff. Not only does this flexibility serve as a benefit to attract good talent, but it can also save costs for the firm.
A brief Google search suggests that rent for premium office space in downtown Indianapolis averages at an annual rate of approximately $26.00 per square foot. Assuming a reasonably sized attorney office is 10×10, multiplying that space by each attorney, and add additional space for support staff, common areas, copy facilities, file storage and conference rooms, the annual cost quickly adds up. Do law firms really need this much physical space? More importantly, do law firms really want to continue to burden themselves with these expenses? When you boil down the law profession, there are not many unique tools that must be completed within an office setting.
Practicing law is not like performing surgery; whereas an operating room must remain sterile, there is no similar corollary in a law office. If legal practitioners work smarter, use remote file sharing and videoconferencing technology, and communicate electronically, there can be an immense financial savings to the firm all while creating employee flexibility and freedom.
To achieve the cost savings and freedom of efficiency, transitioning to a paperless format is a critical part of the process. Eliminating paper files will free up file rooms and create a convenient repository whereby practitioners can access documents remotely and in an orderly fashion. In the ideal setting, traditional file clerks would transition to “intake scanners” that scan all incoming paper documents directly into the firm’s server and label the scans to correspond to the digital version of each file. Electronic filing of internal documents not only creates the flexibility of remote access and saves physical space/rent, but it also forces the firm to be organized in its filing system.
Despite the benefits of the virtual office space, admittedly there are some aspects of practicing law that are particularly well-suited for a physical presence. For example, it is important to have a space to meet clients, conduct depositions and participate in mediations. Moreover, there are real benefits to conducting in-person face-to-face meetings with employees, colleagues and clients. This article is not meant to advocate for the abolition of traditional law firm office space. Rather, the goal is to highlight the efficiencies, employee benefits and cost savings that can come from using technology to reduce the physical footprint of large physical law firm office spaces.
The key takeaway that we can learn from our millennial colleagues is to work smarter, not harder, using the technology available to get the job done. After all, no matter how impressive or vast the office space, it is seemingly more impressive for a firm to display their success by attracting and keeping happy, talented employees while saving costs.•
• Mark Schocke is an attorney in the Merrillville office of Kightlinger & Gray LLP. He specializes in complex litigation including professional negligence and product liability law. The opinions expressed are those of the author.