After having survived the necessary and unorthodox steps to continue practicing in a COVID world, some of us are ready to return to the office. In fact, the idea of adapting your legal practice to a virtual format is not a novel idea – and was adopted by some firms in pre-COVID-19 times.
Now, under COVID-19, the idea of a virtual practice is now a reality for many of us in the legal profession. Yet, as sporadic COVID-19 spikes continue in different areas around the country, deciding whether to permanently return to a normal workspace is a common question.
What are the benefits of a brick-and-mortar office versus a virtual one?
Benefits of Maintaining a Traditional Office
Returning to the traditional office is a reasonable decision, due to the many benefits it provides.
Benefits of a tradition office include having:
a structured environment;
more resources available at the office;
opportunity to work in close proximity to colleagues;
the ability to have more interactive time with clients; and
the chance to get out of the house.
In the past, the foundation to establish and maintain a traditional office involved the question of what was best for your practice’s success.
Today, the legal profession faces other questions that have shifted our priorities:
Is it safe to return to a traditional office?
Am I increasing the possibility for COVID-19 exposure, even with safety procedures in place?
Will I be comfortable in an office environment?
All of these questions play a part in our ability to fully perform and focus on the task at hand.
Although, for many practitioners, the lack of a traditional office is an unprecedented challenge. For some, shifting from a well-structured environment to the unmonitored comforts of home presents the challenge of maintaining focus. Others, when home all of the time, suddenly notice home projects that they can spare time for. Contrary to the minor distractions that can arise from working from home or virtually, the traditional office setting eliminates them entirely by establishing standard hours and a controlled workspace.
Moreover, the recent trend of working from home, as a result of COVID-19 precautions, may have caused cultural impacts to your firm’s environment. Many of us, whether through our own practice or an employer, are accustomed to a legal culture that has been established through decades of regulation, discipline, and maintenance. However, the sudden demand and need for remote work has impacted our established traditions and environment without warning. Therefore, if you hope to restore the environment that your practice previously enjoyed, a speedy and permanent return back to a traditional office may be necessary.
In addition to eliminating home distractions, the traditional office provides resources and the ability to work alongside other colleagues, depending on the size of your practice. For many firms, new and younger associates have the opportunity to learn by working alongside more experienced associates and partners. These firsthand experiences often help newer attorneys develop their skills and knowledge while also building long-lasting professional relationships. By having opportunities to work closely with other attorneys, the legal profession as a whole can continue to expand and improve.
Finally, another crucial contributor to having a traditional office is your practice’s clients. The various areas within business law require different interaction with clients. For some, document review or contract drafting may require minimal client meetings, while restructuring a partnership may require multiple client meetings to ensure the reorganization is properly structured.
However, due to COVID-19, client meetings need to be re-evaluated regarding how best to carry them out. Fortunately, with features such as Zoom, Skype, or Google Meet, client meetings can still take place from a safe distance. While these video options provide an alternative route for holding such meetings, some clients feel reassured by in-person meetings, something a traditional office offers.
In the end, depending on your practice’s focus, sometimes a phone call or video meeting cannot replace the attorney-client relationship that develops with longtime or new clients during in-person meetings.
While these factors are not the only ones you may consider when determining to maintain a traditional office, in the end they may play a vital role in your final decision.
Benefits of a Virtual Office
Contrary to the classic brick-and-mortar office, the virtual office has become more common in today’s legal profession. Even before COVID-19 and social distancing resulted in many people working remotely, the concept of a virtual office was not a novel idea.
However, as a result of COVID-19, many of us have been forced to work from home during the past several months. This sudden change may have initially presented unusual challenges or situations, such as having the kids run through background during a Zoom court conference or the neighbor’s dog’s barking echoing through a phone call.
Yet, over time, you have hopefully been able to adjust and master working from home, to a point where you ask yourself whether you even need a traditional office. As the global atmosphere attempts to return to a “normal” setting, this question is becoming more imminent on whether you should make a final transition to a full-time virtual practice or make the shift back to a traditional setting.
Depending on your practice’s structure and area of focus, a virtual office is easily achievable, so long as a proper system is in place. Benefits to working virtually include:
working from a comfortable setting;
reducing overhead expenses;
ability to have a more flexible schedule; and
take advantage of various tech features to help your practice grow.
For some of us, having to make the daily commute to and from work alone is enough to drive you toward a virtual office. In shifting to a virtual office, you can eliminate the commute entirely, allowing you more time in the morning for yourself before jumping into work. Also – let’s be honest – by working from home you can dress more casually, and change as need be for video conferences or meetings, instead of being formal all day.
Quite simply, having a virtual office permits you to work while enjoying all the comforts of your home – not a terrible scenario.
A forewarning, though, for this casual scenario: while it may be more comfortable to work in relaxed attire, it may cause issues. One concern with casual attire is how it may diminish your professionalism due to the lack of appearing in proper attire for video meetings. This isn’t to say that wearing jeans or sweats will suddenly impair your legal knowledge, but it will be detrimental to the appearance many people expect from their attorney, and in turn cause your client to view you in a diminished light. Along with clients, a casual appearance for internal meetings can threaten your standing or view among other attorneys at your firm.
While it may seem like a minor feature when meeting with co-workers, lack of a proper attire may result in others not being as confident in your work. Therefore, if you elect to adopt a casual attire, be certain about when to choose the suit over the sweats, to ensure your professionalism isn’t lessened by this minor choice.
In addition to being able to work comfortably from home, a virtual office also allows you to eliminate overhead costs and expenses. These costs can include rent, utilities, office supplies, maintenance, and cleaning services. By eliminating overhead costs, you can increase profits and allow resources to be used for expanding your practice as well.
While a traditional office setting may result in more regimented hours, a virtual office permits you to have a more flexible schedule. As opposed to being restricted to your office, going virtual permits you to have more mobility on when and where you work. This means you can now make time to run errands during the day, take care of a household task you’ve been putting off, or go out to lunch with your spouse. Although these may sound like minor benefits, over time they can easily add up to getting more accomplished both at home and with work.
Final aspects to consider when considering a virtual office are the technological needs and benefits. Making the shift to a virtual office also allows you to shift toward a “greener” office, by eliminating unnecessary filing cabinets, excessive documents, and old papers that may get thrown out or recycled. Instead of the traditional filing system, using online sources such as Google Drive or Clio allows you to maintain client files and records in the cloud or on your computer.
However, these new tech tools, while helpful, require training and familiarity with remote systems and procedures. This may appear daunting at first to someone who is used to traditional files, but through time and practice, these systems are easy to master.
A virtual office can offer many positive benefits to your practice, yet weighing the positives with factors that are important to your practices may help you realize that the virtual route is not the way to go.
Unfortunately, not all firms are suitable for virtual work. However, with moderation, your practice can take advantage of the benefits an entirely virtual law office offers. For larger offices, COVID-19 and a changing mentality in general have resulted in firms opening smaller satellite offices and allowing attorneys to work remotely when convenient.
If you’re on the fence, start small and make minor changes to feel out whether making the ultimate shift to a virtual office will be successful or not. What matters is determining if you will be satisfied with the decision and that it allows your practice to continue its success.
This article was originally published on the State Bar of Wisconsin’s Business Law Blog. Visit the State Bar sections or the Business Law Section webpages to learn more about the benefits of section membership.