Covid-19 may be behind us as a daily personal preoccupation, but one major repercussion of its shockingly extended and global impact is still with us:  Do we or do we not go back to the office?

May we review the bidding?

  • Totally remote/zero days-week in the office is not an answer
  • 100% back/five days-week for everyone all the time is not an answer
  • Zeroing in on Law Land:
    • Staff, business professionals, and lawyers all have different views, preferences, and approaches.
      • If “staff” means people largely occupied in keeping the office itself running–conference room staff, receptionists, catering/kitchen personnel–then less demand for their services translates to less call for them to be there @ 100% force level.
      • And it’s the same, or should be, for business professionals.  Even if you think that almost everything that could be done in the office by finance and accounting people, HR and Marketing/BD people, knowledge management and librarians’ staff, can be done largely remotely, you are assuming they aren’t part of the team.  They are, in spades: Integral to your firm’s operating and thriving.
    • But for lawyers, there’s no simple or glib answer.  And this is where it gets difficult.

Unforeseen to most of us three years ago, when Covid was just some weird, exotic, and isolated outbreak in Wuhan, China, senior partners turn out to be among the fastest and most enthusiastic adopters of “WFH.”  And it makes sense:  They have their personal and professional networks established, their spacious and comfortable homes, their community connections solidified, a family, and embedded client relationships.

Associates, by contrast, and the more junior they are the more dramatically this is true, have no, young, nascent, precarious networks; small and often undistinguished apartments with acceptable but not great architecture and design, friends and significant others, little to no established social life outside the office, Starbucks and the local neighborhood restaurant as their living rooms, and you get the idea.  Who would want to spend 24 hours/day, 7 days/week in this environment?  The office promised energy, interaction, sociability, a welcome change of scene.

On the other hand, midlevel and more senior associates may be married or with a long-term significant other, plans for or the reality of infants arriving, a young but solidifying social network through their neighborhood, college and law school classmates, volunteer organizations, book clubs, a church or synagogue, and so forth.  They don’t need the office so much to fulfill those indispensable human yearnings of connection, interaction, sociability, and practice in group dynamics.

Thus we seem to arrived at an impasse.  Or rather, two very distinct experiences of the same work “reality.”  With the attendant tension, misunderstandings, subterranean tension and anxiety, and as the classic line has it, “a failure to communicate.”

Where do we go from here?

A start would be to recognize that BigLaw is scarcely alone in not yet discovering what the new equilibrium between WFH and RTO will be.  Goldman Sachs hasn’t figured it out.  Nor have Apple, JP Morgan Chase, McKinsey, Google, Starbucks, BlackRock, Fidelity, Facebook/Microsoft/Salesforce, and almost everyone else.  Our current reality somehow conjured in my mind’s eye what it’s like to be swimming up towards the surface from a dive, sunshine and fresh air getting closer with every stroke, just not there yet.

And I’m here to tell you we will get there; we will surface, gulp in the air, re-enter our familiar environment.  I know this for two reasons.  First, the global experience is not the US experience.  Workers elsewhere have already gotten back to their offices at far higher rates than we have:  In the UK and the EU particularly–but in Asia and Australia as well–office occupancy is approaching pre-Covid levels.  Granted, some of the reasons have to do with those regions’ different urban infrastructure, with more comprehensive and more reliable  public transit (cutting commute times) and smaller residences making it more awkward to concentrate in peace.

Thanks to the WSJ, we saw just this week that:


In other words, some of what we Americans are experiencing is contingent and not inevitable.  Now, I am not suggesting anything idiotic here (as a rule, I try to avoid that becoming a habit), such as snapping our fingers to make homes and apartments smaller and dynamiting freeways to turn them into mass transit corridors, but I am suggesting that our preferred behaviors turn out, like many other such “habits,” to be at least partially a function of incentives and comfort levels.  Spacious homes, long commutes?  One set of preferences.  Cramped homes, cheap/reliable commutes?  Different result.

Then of course the final answer may be to drastically reconfigure The Office.  “Stealth” rent decreases are evidently extremely widespread in, just to take two cities with more than their share of BigLaw denizens, New York and London.  They take the form not of discounting the “headline” or reported rent per square foot, but of offering far more generous “tenant allowances” when  new leases are signed, and–with even greater impact–waiving rental payments outright for a substantial portion of the lease term.

To take just one example,  Canary Wharf in London would be no one’s idea of an anachronistic, neglected, or undesirable location, yet reports are that new leases being signed there have been in the range of 30+ months rent-free on a 10-year lease.  Meanwhile, commercial real estate brokers and landlords calculate that for space of that caliber, a 33-month waive on a 10-year lease is the rough tipping point where the deal turns from profitable to unprofitable for the owner.

Finally and best of all:  Consider this an era of (unexpected, unsolicited) “creative destruction” of our very concept of The Office.  It’s too soon to tell whether Netflix will replace Blockbuster, Tesla and Lexus will replace Pontiac and Oldsmobile, or smartphones will replace everything in sight, but we know how we used to live now bears the ineradicable scent of the obsolete, the outdated, the stuffy and slightly moldy.

The clear blue surface of the water is approaching.



Courtesy Unsplash

Courtesy WSJ

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