Sometimes we just miss opportunities.
For instance, I just read an article by another real estate broker about the future of law firm space. He made the following assertion:
Spontaneous face-to-face conversations often are the best ways for lawyers to get input and expertise from their partners. It makes sense for law firms to consider designing their space so that their professionals can easily and organically find one another.
What, you are wondering, could I possibly take issue with in that statement?
Well, I think the author fails to acknowledge that it makes sense for law firms to design their space so that lawyers and support staff, the C Suite, operations people, etc. can get input and expertise from each other. First, it’s not just the lawyers that gain from this interaction and second, lawyers can gain from interaction with the rest of a law firm’s employees as well. (Note that I am tap dancing to avoid using the now verboten word “non-lawyer.”)
Law firms that currently do not integrate those members of their staff who regularly interact with lawyers (or who should regularly interact with lawyers) into spaces traditionally occupied primarily by lawyers may be missing a huge opportunity.
Really? Give me an example.
Consider practice group managers and business development people. One large Southeastern law firm assigns such employees to offices near the practice groups they support. The rationale is that the lawyers will trust and rely on the managers and BD people more if they frequently interact with and get to know them. The firm also believes this proximity will lead to increased idea generation and collaboration. Judging from the sophistication of this firm’s industry and practice group platform, its approach is working.
Are any other firms doing this?
The practice group managers at another AmLaw 100 firm headquartered in the Pacific Northwest currently office near the practice group chairs they support, and – where possible – near the practice group members. (Because the firm has several offices across the US, many practice group members are similarly spread out across the US and collocation is not possible.) Per the Chief Strategy Officer at this firm, the arrangement has worked fairly well. The only drawback to date has been that the support staff for the practice group managers office on a staff floor so those employees’ interactions with the practice group managers they support can be limited.
This same firm is in the process of relocating its headquarters office. In its new building, the current plan is for the firm’s attorneys to occupy high-rise floors while its support staff occupies less-expensive low-rise floor space. The firm is now wrestling with how to assign workspaces to ensure optimal productivity and interaction between all employees while minimizing occupancy costs.
This kind of two-tier approach is not uncommon in the legal industry. In fact, some firms locate support staff in entirely different cities than the attorneys they support in order to take advantage of lower labor or office space costs.
Is this really that big of a problem?
To my knowledge, no studies have been done to determine whether communication frequency and quality improves when law firms co-locate support functions with lawyers. However, per an MIT study conducted by Thomas J. Allen in 1977[i], people collaborate best when they are within a 40-foot radius of one another, and they are unlikely to travel farther than that.
Allen measured the strong negative correlation between physical distance and frequency of communication. The “Allen curve” estimates that we are four times as likely to communicate regularly with someone sitting six feet away from us as with someone 60 feet away, and that we almost never communicate with colleagues on separate floors or in separate buildings.[ii]
Perhaps in recognition of this phenomenon, the executive director of another AmLaw 200 firm seized on the opportunity to build better relationships with the attorneys he supported by moving his office to a different attorney floor every year or two. With each move, he was able to really get to know a new group of attorneys better. [More on Smart Collaboration in service firms here.]
If we want to address this issue, where do we start?
For law firms that currently do not collocate lawyers with other functions, perhaps the best place to start testing out collocation is with those roles that might reap the most immediate benefit from an adjacency to the attorneys they support. This may be the project management or pricing teams (for those firms that have them) or the marketing and business development professionals.
Such collocation can have the side benefit of dissolving physical hierarchies between lawyers and the rest of the firm’s employees.
As I continue to research how different firms have approached this issue and to what degree of success, I will update this article. Also, I encourage you to reach out to me and share any relevant experience you have had.
[i] While this study is now 41 years old, its findings have not been invalidated by any subsequent studies.
[ii] “Workspaces That Move People,” Ben Waber, Jennifer Magnolfi, and Greg Lindsay, Harvard Business Review, October 2014.