From Law Office to lawPod : The Apple-ization of McCarthys

Yesterday’s Globe and Mail reported, in McCarthy Tétrault’s Tracie Crook leading firm’s radical transformation,’ that the day of the partner’s corner office may one day be relegated to history.  By inverting the traditional office, partners will now occupy fish tanks in the middle of the office, surrounded by exchangeable stations in an open concept work space for support staff, junior lawyers and students.  In adopting this model, the firm evidently made a conscious decision to reinvent the law practice as a creative endeavour, rather than a technical one.  The extent to which lawyers are applied philosophers or glorified clerks, or a combination of the two, is now a debate the market may be settling in favour of the philosophers.

Perhaps the most significant determinant of the way in which this innovation has sprouted is the effect on the pillars of legal ethics: conflicts of interest and lawyer-client confidentiality.  To a large law firm with many clients whose economic and litigation interests may be adverse, these have long been the centripetal forces with which the law office manager has always had to contend.  If one’s practice were limited to wills, file storage could be accomplished like a bank branch offering a safety deposit room.  But if the diverse practice involves complex deals or litigation, people at every stratum of the organization have to work together, share and document ideas and yet keep everything compartmentalized behind ‘Chinese walls’.

The secret-holding part of law has always involved a trade-off.  The client whose sole business is a simple contract dispute requires no more than an opaque file folder and a place on a file room shelf.  A client about to launch a multi-billion-dollar IPO, however, will want all its lawyers’ work conducted in a secure room with hard-wired and encrypted connections with the outside world. In the legal marketplace, the client with the less sensitive matter will often subsidize the one with the one demanding the more secure work environment.  The difference could be reflected in hourly rates or project fees, but still our large firms charge hundreds of dollars an hour for even a junior associate, in order to make the space work for the whole law firm.  From a profit-making perspective, the relative inelasticity of price makes the lawyer with the less sensitive matter more profitable, but you might have a hard time selling that to the securities lawyers.

Undoubtedly not all large law firm business can be conducted in the fluid social office model of Apple or Google.  Indeed, it would be interesting to see how of McCarthys’ business is currently suitable for the sharing workforce envisaged by their office makeover.  The success of this model will depend entirely on the value that clients place on the work product, and the law firm’s ability to pitch legal creativity and diversity as the value-added service.  If, instead, clients are more concerned about the thickness of walls around their confidential information and private interests, it will be the clients, not the lawyers, who will put the brakes on this type of innovation.  Offering a choice between legal innovation and legal secrecy would allow clients to pay for the type of law they want or need.  That McCarthys has taken a leap – forward, it thinks – has to be a sign that lawyers are gaining a better sense of the actual world which the legal world serves.

Thanks to Prof. Alice Woolley of the University of Calgary for bringing to Globe article to the writer’s attention.

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