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Managing Up

The Law Firm Ecosystem: Location Neutrality

By Erik Mazzone

The way your law firm runs is a complex ecosystem made up of technology solutions, business development strategies, billing practices and, of course, systems for recruiting, retaining and getting the most out of the people who work there. In the next few Managing Up columns, Erik Mazzone will be asking you to reimagine your law firm ecosystem, particularly as it relates to your ability to attract and keep top talent.

law firm ecosystem

Jobs in Your Firm Exist in the Firm’s Ecosystem

I’m having a lot of conversations these days with lawyers about how hard it is to find and keep new employees. I spoke to an attorney the other day who mentioned that a legal assistant was poached by another firm in the same practice area in the same building — at a salary that not too long ago would have been a decent starting salary for a lawyer. That kind of thing didn’t used to happen much and it’s getting progressively more common as it gets harder to recruit and retain staff.

A lot of variables go into successful recruitment and retention, but too much attention is paid to a micro-level of analysis of this: what is the job, how much does it pay, what are the hours, what are the advancement opportunities and so on. Certainly, those factors matter, but they don’t exist alone. Jobs in your firm exist in your firm ecosystem and are inevitably and heavily affected by that ecosystem.

Providing an excellent opportunity in an otherwise less-desirable firm ecosystem dilutes efforts and compromises results.

How Does Your Ecosystem Affect Recruitment and Retention?

For the next several articles in this column, I’m going to focus on your law firm ecosystem and how it relates to the ability to successfully recruit and retain top talent. Some of the items we’ll discuss will involve making some capital expenditures, but most involve just opening your mind to doing things a bit differently. I’m a fan of experimentation in firm management (one variable at a time, please!); if some change doesn’t produce the results you hope for, scrap it. It’s not a lifetime commitment.

But if you’re struggling to attract and retain employees (as so many firms are), pay mind to the saying (paraphrasing here), “If you keep doing what you always did, you’ll keep getting what you always got.”

Should Your Firm Adopt a Location-Neutral Culture?

Let’s kick off the look at the law firm ecosystem with something that will cost you very little: adopting a location-neutral culture.

OK, that sounds like a bunch of Harvard Business Review gibberish, so let’s unpack it in English.

When someone asks you about your law firm today, chances are that you think of it as a place. An office suite or historic house or a spot in a downtown coworking space. There’s a strong temptation to equate the physicality of office space with legitimacy in some bizarre way. It’s like until you have a wall to display your many fancy diplomas and a window that looks out onto something pretty, you have not arrived.

By adopting a location-neutral culture, I’m asking you to ditch those old ideas and think about your firm not as a physical place but as a team and a set of processes that are set up to provide superlative legal services to clients.

Forget about what you currently own or rent and metaphorically rip it down to the studs.

If you were starting today from scratch, what would you need in terms of space to serve your ideal clients? The answer might well be no real estate at all or a much smaller footprint.

OK, now that you have that vision of the minimum viable space to serve clients, let’s pull focus back to your team.

Creating and offering a location-neutral culture doesn’t necessarily mean you have no office or that nobody ever comes to the office. Rather, it means your team can work from any location as long as it meets the needs of providing the kind of work to your clients that you want your firm to provide.

When I have these conversations with clients, the first reaction I get is usually:

“Great, everybody needs to come to the office where I can keep an eye on them, make sure they’re working and serving the clients well and everything is going OK.”

But, as I say to them, remember that the reason we are going through this analysis in the first place is that we’ve entered a new and challenging time to recruit and retain staff.

Experiment: Will Creating a Location-Neutral Firm Improve Hiring and Retention?

I’m not going to tell you that forcing your team to work from the office five days a week is a bar to recruiting and retention because I don’t have the data to support that. And if I did, there’s nothing to say that your firm in your city in your practice area conforms to the data. Instead, I want to take you back to experimentation.

Identify a variable and a hypothesis, test it and monitor the results.

In this case, I am suggesting as a variable and a hypothesis that a location-neutral culture will make it easier to attract and retain key talent.

I’m further suggesting that with a little rethinking, you can manage the work of a remote team as effectively as you can that of a team on premises. The beauty of the experimentation approach is that you can try it out and see if you can make it work for your firm.

Set a timeframe for your experiment.

You can articulate to your team that it is an experiment to last X months and at the end of it you will evaluate how the experiment worked. Along the way, you can tell prospective employees that you’re trying out a location-neutral approach and see if that moves the needle in terms of offer acceptance and salaries.

Data is your friend here.

There is no substitute for having your own data set, so start keeping track. My belief is that pivoting to a location-neutral culture will make recruiting easier, make your current team happier, and eventually save you money on your real estate spend. If you do it right, your team will be as well managed as ever and it should be invisible to your clients. But more on this in a future installment.

Good luck with the experiment. Let me know how it goes!

Also in Managing Up: “What Got You Here Won’t Get You There: Tools for Law Firm Growth

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Erik Mazzone Erik Mazzone

Erik Mazzone is a law practice management advisor, writer, speaker and adjunct law professor. As a consultant, he works with individuals and organizations to help them use technology and strategic business practices to reign in chaos, build systems, and grow their practices in smart, sustainable ways. Previously, Erik served as Senior Director of the North Carolina Bar Association Membership Experience and Director of the NCBA Center for Practice Management. He writes and speaks widely on legal technology and practice management, in North Carolina and throughout the country. Follow him on Twitter @ErikMazzone and on LinkedIn.

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