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The Office

Downtown lawyers. In-­house lawyers. Offshore lawyers. And now, WalMart lawyers. Beyond what we do, we are also in no small part defined by where we do it. The recent launch of a firm offering services within several Ontario WalMart locations has crystallized this point, and set tongues a­-wagging in North American legal circles. Many see “WalMart law” as a certain harbinger of impending Armageddon for all that was once sacred and noble about the profession. Others welcome it as an overdue acknowledgement that times have already changed, and that lawyers must accept that “because that’s the way it’s always been done” no longer suffices as a rationale for all
things law firm.

Regardless of which side of the debate you happen to support, putting a law firm within a WalMart has helped to illuminate the key role that location and the physical environment of lawyers’ workplaces play in perceptions about the legal service itself. As the legal market continues to splinter and lawyers and firms at all levels look for different levers to pull to gain a competitive advantage, I anticipate we will see more firms exploring non­ traditional locations, more work environments that don’t conform to conventional law office norms, and increased adoption of client­ facing resource centers / intake zones /satellite offices that are separate from the main physical plant but offer better exposure to key client groups.

Many of the criticisms I’ve seen from lawyers about the Walmart­ inhabiting firm are revealing. Several question the quality of legal advice one might receive from a firm dispensing its wares alongside the dish soap and jeans that a big box retail outlet spews forth into the world. Some lament what a lousy environment this would be to work in.

Others pronounce with more than a hint of derision that they would never dream of obtaining legal advice from such a place. Each of these points is worth considering in more detail.

First – the assertion that placing a law firm within a retail environment indicates a lack of quality. Beyond underscoring just how powerful a role location plays in shaping perceptions, this argument is specious as it assumes that a nebulously defined standard of quality is the only benchmark on which legal services can and should be judged, and implicitly concludes that a retail firm can’t measure up to its full ­service downtown firm counterparts. But out in the wild, legal services are judged by clients on a number of different factors beyond “quality”: ­ cost, convenience and approachability being just a few of them. And a large downtown firm is not the true comparison point for the types of services being offered in the WalMart example ­ – notarizations, simple wills, and residential conveyances ­ all of which have long since been priced out of existence at larger firms. Sole practitioners, small boutiques, and freshly­ minted calls at slightly larger firms likely form a more accurate comparison point within the profession, and self ­help books, notaries public, winging it with something gleaned from a Google search or simply not dealing with the matter at all are likely alternatives in the client’s mind.

The second and third points against big-­box retail law (lousy work environment / I wouldn’t obtain legal services this way) are each examples of lawyer myopia. Lawyers focused on the idea that a retail office would be an unpleasant work environment are concentrating on what works best for them, not what works for the client. Competitive companies in other industries start from the position of determining what their clients want or need, and then figuring out how to deliver it to them, rather than beginning with how they would like the world to be, and looking out from that idealized vantage point to see if any clients will comply with that arrangement.

Additionally, while a retail office might seem positively Dickensian if you are middle­-aged lawyer currently occupying Class A office space downtown, it might well be much more attractive to a more junior lawyer anxious to get a foot in the door somewhere within the profession, or someone looking for part-­time contract work outside of standard law firm business hours. The final argument, that “I would not do this; ergo it must be bad for others”, is a recurring theme I see within law firms, where senior lawyers assume they are the target market for their own services. With some rare exceptions, it is important to understand that you are not your client. While we all carry an in­-built bias towards assuming that our own thoughts and habits are “normal”, from a marketing perspective it is dangerous to extrapolate that the senior decision­maker’s thought processes, pre­-purchase research activities and purchasing habits automatically accurately reflect those of the audience you are trying to reach.

Big-­box retail is one alternative office arrangement, but there are others as well. In Toronto, Cognition LLP has loft­-style offices and an intake center at a local tech incubator. Another “NewLaw” Toronto firm, Conduit Law, also offers the tech-­startup vibe, embeds lawyers as part­-time in­-house counsel at their clients’ offices, and offers shared desk space and work­-from­-home arrangements as well. Just a few examples, but they speak to a larger point – your location and physical environment play a significant role in your law firm’s brand. And in an era where it can be very difficult to distinguish yourself from your competitors, deep consideration of where you deliver your services and what the physical environment looks like is an underdeveloped opportunity that forward­-thinking firms will increasingly consider in greater depth as a way to more strategically target specific types of work and specific types of clients.

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Comments

  1. I couldn’t agree more, Doug. The nay-sayers are arguing against putting legal services in an accessible, approachable, affordable location. When you put it that way, it makes the arguments more than specious, it makes them patronizing and elitist. And sadly, it reinforces the stereotypes many people already have about lawyers.

    As you rightly point out, for the target market (no pun intended), the alternative isn’t Bay Street. It’s DIY or Google or the “guys down the pub.” In many cases, the alternative may be no legal services at all. Where’s the justice in that?

    As a profession, we are obliged to provide quality service to our clients. Where we provide it is irrelevant to the quality delivered. Because a group of lawyers has found a smart way to deliver legal services to the majority of the population who don’t need, cannot afford, or are intimidated by the fancy offices and the million-dollar art collections is no reason to scoff. The folks at Axess Law are providing access to justice. We should be lauding them.

    Karen

  2. This article makes some excellent points. In my 20+ years in practice, I have practised as part of a firm in a Class A office building, as a sole practitioner out of my house with a remote clerk working out of her house, and currently run a small personal injury firm out of very modest office space shared with another firm in a older, sort of run-down suburban strip plaza. How busy I was, and how much I billed, has been irrelevant to the nature of my office. For those of us without large, blue chip banks and insurers as clients, I am convinced the type of office is irrelevant. And from a financial perspective, if I can be equally busy and keep my clients satisfied from lower cost offices, my profits are higher. I would rather spend the fees I earn outside of my office rather than on the office overhead.

  3. Michael MacIsaac

    I’ve got to say, this style looks quite appealing to a soon-to-be law grad. I had never quite thought of the traditional model the way it was explained in the Globe and Mail article you cited, and while I’m thrilled to be going where I’ll be going to article and begin my career, this adds a new “layer to the onion” if you will. The more I read up about Cognition, the more it seems they’re on the front lines of the next generation of legal services. Very intriguing.

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