Junny Lee, The Work Project.
Junny Lee, The Work Project. (Handout Photo)

Consider the law office. It’s sprawling, it’s busy, it’s full of expensive leather chairs and mahogany bookshelves (got to keep the senior partners happy). Private offices are the rule. It’s mired in tradition, and nothing about the layout has changed since—well, since the lawyers who lent their name to the firm were alive.

But law is changing. As artificial intelligence (AI) begins taking over some of the law firm’s basic functions, the very roles of the law firm are beginning to shift, and the old structural hierarchy—secretaries out in the open, paralegals in cubicles, senior partners in the corner office—is becoming obsolete. Money is an issue, too. “Traditionally legal firms could afford to have the grand workplace in the heart of the city,” says Su Lim, founder of Melbourne-based workplace strategy consulting firm Workcollectiv. “Now, pressure on revenue and profits coupled with increasing central business district rentals in major markets have led to legal firms rethinking the need for lavish offices, large legal libraries and traditional heritage finishes.”

Because of this, lawyers need to be more flexible about not just how they work, but where they work. Firms can’t commit to 10- or 20-year leases anymore, because they don’t know what their staffing needs in a decade will be. And buying a huge top floor office might just be too risky. Instead of investing in corner offices and more mahogany, Big Law may be best served by looking toward tech startups and trying open floor plans, highly flexible coworking spaces, and shorter, lighter leases. After all, it’s looking like the future will be ever more flexible across the board, and all traditional industries—not just law—would do well to see restructuring as an opportunity for change, and not just a threat.

Artificial Intelligence Is Moving Up

Paralegals and first year associates are often expected to wade through enormous amounts of often-unstructured data, and this is, of course, a massive time sink. But new versions of AI can wade through and analyze this data effectively, freeing up humans to do the more cerebral work. AI can also be trained to help predict litigation and search documents for concepts instead of keywords, leading to more sophisticated search practices that will in turn eliminate the necessity for document review. For example, the company eBrevia uses AI to speed up the industry-standard processes of contract analysis, due diligence, and lease abstraction—all of which can suck up huge chunks of time (and blow through the client’s budget). Or look at the startup  Ross Intelligence, which uses cognitive technology to answer simple legal questions, in an attempt to cut down on the cost of legal research to consumers—again, allowing lawyers to focus on more high-level work.

What does this look like on the ground level? The reduction of lower-end legal job. “Law firms have historically had a pyramid structure that technology is evolving into a diamond,” says Dan Jansen, CEO of NextLaw Labs, a law-technology legal subsidiary of a large law firm, who notes that the work at the bottom of the pyramid is now “being automated.”

Other lawyers agree. At a Queen’s University law school panel, panelists discussed the way that increases in artificial intelligence will affect the availability of legal jobs in the near future. In a survey cited by one of the panelists, half of the respondents believed that AI would replace paralegals, and 35% said it would replace first-year associates. Of course, this would be enormously disruptive to the industry, and many lawyers feel a sense of impending doom about these changes. Will robots be putting them out of a job entirely? Is the future of law strangely human-free?

Freed-up Lawyers Means Changing Office Structures

So now that young lawyers don’t have to spend hours slogging through spreadsheets, what are they going to do with all their free time? The fear is that they won’t have a job, period. But it doesn’t have to be that way—not if the structure of the office changes to accommodate this new diamond shape. It’s looking like legal tech will actually challenge the traditionally vertical/hierarchical structure of lawyering, which affects not just lawyers, but the very structure of law offices. The lawyer Basha Rubin has argued that this will abolish or substantially reduce the number of massive bill-by-the-hour firms in favor of smaller firms, more horizontal partnerships, and more entrepreneurial lawyers and lawyering practices. By extension, the whole corner-office layout is threatened.

Panelists at the Queen’s University talk declared that the lawyers of the future should expect a more mobile, agile job market wherein long-term firm jobs are less and less a reality, and flexibility is a must. Said panelist Jordan Furlong: “The future of legal employment is going to be more entrepreneurial and independent.” Note that he didn’t say that legal employment was going to plummet to zero—just that it was going to look a bit different.

So, if law is becoming horizontal, flexibility is becoming more prized, and the whole industry is taking on an entrepreneurial spirit, where are these brave new lawyers going to actually get their work done?

Well, any tech startup employee could tell you that.

A Little Less Corner Office, A Little More Coworking Space

Instead of buying a huge, traditional office, or signing on to another 20 years at the old Johnson, Johnson and Johnson building, law offices—who are already letting their employees work from home more and more—should begin looking to open floor plans and flexible coworking spaces. Back in 2010, Eversheds in London moved to a new headquarters that supported open communication and collaboration while providing maximum flexibility. In Australia, Corrs Chambers Westgarth recently implemented a progressive, open-plan workplace in their Sydney and Brisbane offices. Not only does this open up exciting new opportunities for lawyers (Referrals! Collaborations!) but it just makes sense. In a world of robots taking care of due diligence and young lawyers who’ve been freed up to focus on big-picture thinking, it’s hard to expect lawyers to continue putting in late hours in mahogany-paneled corner offices.

Whether a firm embraces a more futuristic office depends both on the personalities of the partners as well as what the firm is trying to accomplish. Charles Fegely, the Hong Kong director for the commercial real estate company Jones Lang LaSalle, says, “Some firms have embraced the more open, unstructured environment of progressive layouts, while other firms still have quite a lot of resistance to open-plan environments, especially given the need to protect client confidences or privileged information during calls or in meetings.” But as the hierarchies change, he expects this resistance to fade away, as law firms—just like other businesses—”want their offices to improve employee experience and maximize wellbeing as well as enhance productivity and foster innovation and collaboration.”

Design and architecture firm Gensler certainly agrees that this is the wave of the future. They argue that the “legal office of the future” will be smaller, more open, and increasingly technologically enabled. Their designs emphasize wall-free floor plans, equally-sized offices for all workers, a mix of social and private space, and full technological integration. Others have also predicted that open floor plans will finally be coming to the legal profession, heralding a new age of collaboration over hierarchy.

Before this wave of the future can happen, though, certain types of regulation have to catch up. For example, in Hong Kong and Singapore, law firms aren’t permitted to share office spaces or common areas with other companies, making coworking impossible. What ends up happening is that law firms need to reduce their real estate footprint anyway, so employees end up working from home. It seems likely, though, that regulation will catch up with these changing legal trends sooner or later, meaning that lawyers in these major cities will be allowed into the coworking world and firms will be able to operate with more mobility, collaboration, and at a lower cost.

For all this, we have to thank the robots. When the International Legal Technology Association held a panel charmingly titled “Do Robot Lawyers Dream of Billable Seconds?”, they decided that the rise of AI and of technology more generally will lead to smaller, more agile, more specialized law firms that may come together in global networks to form “superfirms,” and will require increasingly agile, entrepreneur-friendly spaces to work in.

Lawyers should look at these changes as a gift—not a threat to their stability. “Ensuring the physical environment supports round-the-clock work ultimately benefits the bottom line,” says Fegely. Plus, in a new legal world of glass walls—or no walls at all—and very little paperwork, the corner office is looking more attainable than ever.