Industries across the globe are trying to navigate fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic. Most law firms have shifted to virtual work as shelter-in-place orders and other government regulations halt normal operations. Recent law school graduates going to work in the fall may find an entirely different office environment than what they were expecting – then again, maybe not.
The legal profession is in a unique position to return to the office and isolate from within the workplace. Organizations that shifted to open offices years ago are grappling with what the future looks like for open floorplans and communal spaces, while the nature of legal work and reliance on traditional office tools to meet client and court demands has resulted in many law firms retaining larger floorplans and personal offices.
As our design team researches and explores more about how the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting the legal profession, we know one thing to be true: lawyers, and our approach to designing spaces that inspire and support their work, will rely on precedence. We look to evidence-based design, peer-reviewed studies, and occupancy evaluations and data to find solutions that empower today’s brightest legal minds to solve big problems.
We sat down with Asti Gallina, Litigation Associate at Seattle-based law firm Foster Garvey, to hear a firsthand account of how the new the new reality is impacting her work.
What does your day-to-day look like from home, and is it it different than your usual office routine?
I am based in Spokane while our firm’s principal office is in Seattle, so on a normal day I would go into my brick and mortar office and spend most of the time on the phone or computer. My workflow hasn’t changed much. With perhaps one exception that my office in the firm is on the way to the kitchen, which usually results in more pop-ins to break up the day!
What do you miss about the office?
The legal assistance typically provided in an office environment is sorely missed. Legal assistants might print out case materials and highlight sections for review or handle confidential mailing in a secure environment. If you are in a deposition, an assistant would print copies of hundreds of pages of documents that need to be physically verified in court by multiple parties. The workload is tied to the office in such a way that we can’t ask a legal assistant to do those things anymore. In my experience, most legal work can be reduced to a digital format, but the lack of support staff is tough to adapt.
What’s one thing that you hope continues after we all return to the office?
My coworkers are much more comfortable collaborating across offices while we are remote. The concept of ‘who is in what office’ is less important and the proximity bias of ‘ask someone sitting next to you’ doesn’t exist.
Has anything come up with your work that surprised you?
We have a stay on all in-person litigation in our county. This puts lawyers in a tough spot with depositions because they must be recorded virtually or put on pause until they can be recorded in-person. Depositions, or a witness’s sworn testimony out of court, are usually expensive and high stakes.
It’s important during a deposition that everyone can hear each other in real time – the person being deposed answers questions, a court reporter transcribes every word, sometimes there is the added layer of a translator, the lawyer defending the deposition must listen along to object at the pertinent time, and you have the lawyer asking questions.
Each word needs to be recorded exactly. If someone’s internet is lagging you must reread the question and start over from the point where everyone was together. People don’t want to risk dropping a call or deal with lagging internet that can cause an already expensive service to go from five hours long to 15. For that reason, many lawyers are opting to wait until quarantine is over to host depositions.
How are lawyers working with clients right now?
It depends on the type of law you practice. If you’re working with individuals, the expectation is people still want to come into their lawyer’s office for a meeting. My firm works with municipalities and organizations that are larger and tend to communicate digitally. We don’t have clients come into our office for meetings in a room very often and we certainly aren’t doing it now.