Unconventional Law Firm Design in a Virtual World


Unconventional Law Firm Design in a Virtual World

Looking Back

The traditional law firm had consistent, recognizable parameters. Upscale premises in a downtown building. Three founding partners’ names on the masthead. A crisply efficient receptionist serving coffee while clients waited in a lobby festooned with a stately wall of expired case reports. An industrious squadron of slightly-harried legal assistants dotting the office interior and besuited, bespectacled lawyers over along the windows, standing (well, okay, sitting mostly) ready to provide bespoke legal services from engagement to conclusion in exchange for a completely indeterminate quantity of hourly fees.

This sepia-tinged scene was already undergoing a slow demise pre-pandemic, but now it all seems utterly quaint.

The Big Shift

Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.

Ferris Bueller

Given the last 15+ months, Mr. Bueller’s 1986 philosophical musings now look prescient. Unmoored from our offices, all aspects of law firm modus operandi are suddenly up for debate. Some will take advantage of these changing seas to chart bold new directions, some will hope to scramble back to port, and a few will be left twisting in the wind.

What Comes Next

WHAT: Innovative firms will become more selective about what they do, honing in on niche and discrete elements of the legal process (e.g., specialist settlement counsel) rather than offering end-to-end anything-that-needs-doing help. See Sonali Sharma’s article on unbundled services for more in this vein.

WHERE: Being liberated from the physical plant has allowed some firms to recalibrate and also cast a wider net. 20-lawyer firm Hammerco Lawyers has just moved to a more central Vancouver location while shrinking their footprint by 50%. Co-Managing Partner Morgyn Chandler says the firm was already headed toward an “office hoteling” concept, but the success of pandemic-induced remote work confirmed the approach’s validity, resulting in the firm reducing their footprint further still.

Chandler’s own practice is geographically split between Vancouver and Vancouver Island. She notes clients’ quick acceptance of remote services now means less commuting for her, but more importantly opens up the entire province as a potential client base of the firm. It is also now easier for clients in smaller and remote locales to access a broader range of legal expertise and a bigger talent pool.

HOW: Artificial Intelligence (“AI”) in a small or mid-sized firm? Yep, it’s here. Family law firm Henderson Heinrichs recently deployed Settify software on the firm’s website, an AI-powered online client service tool that helps clients prepare for their initial consultation. Heinrichs describes their initial impression of the tool as “overwhelmingly positive.”

HOW MUCH: The recent transition to no-fault auto insurance is another driver of change (no pun intended). Many personal injury-intensive firms are now transferring their skillsets to other practices. In this regard Hammerco’s Chandler notes they are seeing success translating the firm’s comfort with contingency-fee arrangements to areas like commercial and estate litigation where hourly fees previously prevailed.

Speaking of fees, it feels like we’ve been talking about the “death of the billable hour” forever with little actual movement, but perhaps the tipping point is now at hand. North Vancouver lawyer Digby Leigh moved his firm away from hourly billing and reports it has been a great success from the client perspective as well as driving significant operational changes within the firm. He expands on this topic elsewhere in this issue.


What once was sacred is sacred no more. Liberated from the old playbook, firms are taking this opportunity to rethink all aspects of their operations. You should too.

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