Are Physical Law Offices Obsolete?

By Neale deGravelles

In the wake of COVID-19, the entire world was suddenly thrown into the world of remote work. Law firms around the country switched from conducting business in traditional, physical office spaces to relying on remote work and Zoom, seemingly overnight.

The lasting impact of this shift in a post-COVID world remains to be seen. Eying the substantial savings firms can reap from reducing or eliminating their brick-and-mortar office space, many in the industry question whether legal offices are on the way to becoming obsolete.

But there is a reason courts are often housed in imposing, even palatial, buildings. The architecture and surroundings of a courthouse signal the seriousness of the business carried on inside it. The physical location helps represent that the court brings to bear the full weight, power and importance of the federal or state government and the rule of law.

A law office functions in a similar way. An impressive, dignified office says to clients, attorneys and peers that these are practitioners worthy of respect and officers of the court. When clients enter your office seeking an attorney, they more likely than not have a serious problem. Your office space indicates that you are a professional who can handle that problem in a serious way.

In other words, respect for the practice of law and for the process of seeking justice is reinforced by the architecture of the building and the design of the physical space.

There are some real benefits to remote options, but the practice of law requires brick-and-mortar offices to maintain the dignity and decorum of the profession. Here’s why.

Establishing Credibility

The successful practice of law relies, in part, on establishing credibility and fostering trust. The law industry already suffers from a perception problem driven by venture capitalist lawyers and so-called “ambulance chasers” that damages the public’s trust in the profession.

That’s why it’s critical for attorneys to maintain decorum and establish trust. Virtual offices have the potential to cheapen the legal process and make it more difficult for attorneys to establish trust and credibility with potential clients and with other attorneys and peers.

When you enter a law practice, all of the physical elements of it—the building itself, the decor, the nicely framed degrees, the law licenses with the official state seal and court justices’ signatures, all signal to the potential client that you are credible, that you can be trusted.

Conversely, the opportunity to talk with the client in person and read their body language allows you to ensure that your client is worthy of your trust and that you will be able to faithfully advocate on their behalf.

Providing Clients the Support They Need

The need for a physical office space goes beyond credibility, though. The practice of law often comes down to building and maintaining relationships. Clients who come to attorneys often have experienced trauma, loss and grief. They don’t just need competent legal counsel. They need compassion and support.

No one wants to console a mother who has lost her son in a terrible industrial accident over Zoom. Some things simply need to be handled in person (if at all possible). Offering clients a physical, reassuring space to meet with you allows you to establish a genuine connection with them and provide the level of support and comfort they need in these difficult moments. And you certainly don’t want to have technical problems in the midst of a hard conversation with a client.

A physical office also gives clients peace of mind. It indicates that you have an established practice and provides a level of accountability that they can connect with you when they need to. It can also lead to business. If someone is walking down the street and needs a notary, for example, they might drop into your office, and this chance encounter could lead to future cases and referrals.

Offering Flexibility and Inclusion

The fact remains, though, that the legal industry is never fully returning to the way it was before the pandemic. Some good things have resulted from the shift to remote work. Remote work options provide attorneys and staff more flexibility and make it easier to connect with staff outside of the traditional office environment.

Remote options are also more accessible and inclusive for clients. For non-local clients, video conferencing provides access to your counsel when traveling to your office for an in-person meeting is not an option. For clients with disabilities, caregiving responsibility, or who may not have transportation, a remote option allows them to access your services easily and conveniently.

But firms don’t need to eliminate their physical office space to provide for these options. Scaling down offices and offering flexible working arrangements to staff can create the best of both worlds—establishing credibility and providing clients in-person interactions while still allowing the firm to use remote and virtual options when needed.