Major Trends in Urban & Suburban Law Firm Office Space Design

The law firm industry is currently undergoing a significant transformation affecting both large and smaller firms, urban as well as suburban, that cuts across all subcategories of legal specialization. There are a number of issues simultaneously impacting the legal industry ranging from increased cost efficiencies, major changes in technology, cultural differences between attorney age groups, as well as the globalization of industry and commerce including law firms.

At the same time, there is a greater understanding by architects, design gurus, attorney administrators and partners on the importance of design, layout, decor and functionality of the law firm office on recruitment, attorney retention, client and staff satisfaction, competition within the same legal subsector and increased bottom-line profitability.

Image, Color, Materials, Finishes

Heavy wood paneling, solid mahogany or oak furniture and dark interior motifs are being replaced by light, steel, glass, transparency, a high-tech feel and openness. While the dark wood of the past may have conveyed the somber, serious and traditional image to our parents and grandparents, today and tomorrow’s generations of clients and attorneys are definitely looking at the bright side of business and life.

Workstations have a lower height to increase the open feeling, interior glass sidelights let the exterior natural light into the working areas, and lighter, brighter tones dominate the law firm of the future. Transparency, white or light colors, light pine, smoked or clear interior glass all impact the overall image of the space.

Greening, environmentally conscious office furniture made of recycled materials or designed for recycling at the end of its life are also of increased importance. The image the firm intends to convey plays an important part in designing the client areas such as reception and conference rooms. This is important throughout the law firm’s layout with regard to how it is viewed by staff and attorneys. For multi-locational attorney firms, uniformity in design throughout their offices comes into question. Are the same carpet and workstation specifications required for all offices or are there geographical or client factors involved which might dictate some degree of individuality?

First impressions are paramount, whether it be the class and location of the building, ease of parking or public transportation access, the lobby décor, main lobby signage, tenant floor identification, doubledoor entry off the lobby versus an entryway down a multi-tenanted hallway, the reception area, station and receptionist all impact the visual and emotional senses of clients and opposing attorneys alike.

Generational Differences

Senior law partners now approaching their 50’s to 80’s (and higher) have an entirely different set of cultural parameters than the newest generation of law school graduates just entering the legal profession. In-between are the attorneys in their 30’s and 40’s with yet again a different set of backgrounds and expectations. Generational and cultural changes are reflected in law office design and layout. Just as the traditional dark wood paneling is increasingly replaced by lighter tones, so do changes in technology and cultural attitudes affect the office space. For instance, high legal assistant to attorney ratios are being supplanted by recognition of the
tech-savvy generation who may find it quicker to prepare much of their paperwork themselves – paperwork formerly done by assistants.

For those with young families, having a healthy work-life balance is important, leading to smaller, more efficient office space and resulting in a lower cost of doing business.

Flexibility in Law Firm Office Design

For the most part, law firms today are in a state of change. Larger firms consolidate, smaller firms merge, and attorneys leave larger firms to start their own practices. Changes in the economy also play a role, with
specialty fields that were formerly lucrative such as those related to new residential development being outpaced by specialties focused on legal aspects unheard of twenty years ago. How can a firm prepare for unforeseen growth or shrinkage, especially when due to the high cost of tenant improvements most landlords are requiring longer term leases in order to recoup their upfront investment?

Law firm space can be designed anticipating change from the onset, using separate pods with their own entrance potential and life-safety and exit requirements. Integrated into the overall layout, such pods can be sublet or partially terminated in the event of downsizing without a major impact on the main space retained. For expansion potential, expansion options or first right of refusal or offers can be negotiated into the initial lease. Subletting to smaller law firms or individual attorneys who are willing to pay for the benefit of sharing the receptionist, use of the conference rooms, etc., may give the firm interim income and control over future expansion space.

Size of Attorney Offices

Traditional tiered office sizing, with senior partners in spacious corner view offices, mid-level attorneys in private offices ranging from 120 to 250 square feet, and associate attorneys in smaller but still private offices have morphed into a variety of new office sizes and configurations.

Some law firms are opting for the ‘one size fits all’ concept with senior and junior partners and associates all having the same size office. This allows for greater flexibility as lawyers move up in seniority, as major renovation of existing offices is reduced or eliminated. In general, and industry-wide, office sizes have shrunk significantly over the past two decades. Some firms are placing new associates in workstations versus private offices, or converting a former partner corner office into an office shared by three associate attorneys who prefer collaboration with their fellow lawyers to the isolation of their own office.

There is an increase in collaborative space where teams of attorneys can congregate for the duration of a specific case or project and then dissipate into new collaboration groups for the next project. Informal nooks where small groups of attorneys can meet to discuss common clients or brainstorm can be facilitated using modern technology, including Wi-Fi and electronic screens, so multiple people can view the same documents, all without the formality of utilizing a conference room.

Space Metrics

In general, with much variance depending on specific circumstances, corporate law firms, which used to average 850 ft2 per attorney, shrunk to 750 ft2 a few years ago, and can now measure 600 – 650 ft2 per attorney. Litigation practices might average 750 ft2 per attorney, and heavy litigation with dedicated war rooms might top out at 1,000 ft2 per attorney.

For every 8 to 10 partners, one 6 to 8 person meeting room might be a reasonable ratio. The furniture manufacturer Knoll participated in a law firm retreat and found the following from its Employee Survey:

  • Where do you work? 48% of workers spend some time working from home. 17% spend time working at clients locations. 19% spend time working in other locations.
  • Where do you feel more productive? 67% feel most or somewhat productive working at home. 98% feel most productive at the office.
  • When you collaborate with others, where do you meet? Private office: 39%; Conference room: 41%; Open shared space: 85%

Conference Rooms

Numerous factors, such as the size of the firm, the type of law practiced, the accessibility to conference facilities within the building or office complex, and the culture of the firm, affect the number and size of conference rooms, as well as the infrastructure and layout design within each conference room. Image plays a key factor as well, with many medium and larger firms still placing one of their main conference rooms directly off the lobby, often with interior glass to show off the exterior view.

Larger firms may have a conference room center where a number of conference rooms are clustered off the lobby, with adjacent coffee or lunchroom facilities and easy access to restrooms to avoid having to route visitors through the firm’s working areas.

In the past, it was common for senior attorney partners to have spacious private offices large enough for their own conference table and chairs. This is being replaced by a realization that nearby common conference rooms use space more efficiently, resulting in less-spacious partner offices and bottom-line savings. Multi-national law firms or those catering to multi-national clients may opt for teleconferencing facilities within one or more of their conference rooms. Strategically placed cameras and large flat screens allow for real time video conferencing. New technology by Polycom and others allow almost any location to be used for teleconferencing, while Skype and similar applications make it affordable for firms of all sizes. Wireless capability and electric connectivity at the conference table are increasingly important so participants can access
iPads and laptops.

Conference room furniture has undergone significant transformations. While the conference table of the past still exists, some firms have transitioned to smaller, portable tables on wheels which can be set up for use as a conference or training room, to name just a few configurations.

Law Libraries

Once the hallmark of a law firm’s heritage, bookshelves with rows and rows of law text, regulations, interpretation and rulings used to line many hallways. Major firms had entire law libraries with thousands of square feet of bookshelves, law books dating back to the 1800s, and ample space for research. However, over the past twenty years those symbols of firm stability have been almost entirely replaced by online resources. There is a growing realization that not only are most law libraries seldomly utilized, and that they may now portray old-school thinking not in line with modern technology, there are also economic considerations. Just a 500 ft2 space can cost the firm $150,000 at a $30/ft2 annual rent figure over a 10 year lease. If this amount was invested in technological upgrades how much more efficient would attorneys and legal assistants be in accessing legal information online?

Mobile devices allow research from almost anywhere, while wireless connections facilitate printing and collaboration. There is also a growing use of legal outsourcing, either in the form of legal staffing companies or offshore research.

File Rooms

Most law firms have not completely escaped the avalanche of hard copy files, although many firms have scanned documents and sent substantial amounts of materials to either off-site storage or paper shredders. Different law specializations and various requirements may impact how much on-site hard copy paper filing is required. There are significant time savings and convenience associated with digital files.

Digital files allow for easy access, full-text keyword search, and file sharing, just to name a few advantages. On top of this is the cost savings of not storing unnecessary files in costly office rental space. Technological advances, including document management systems and high speed scanners will continue to reduce on-site storage demand.

Lunchroom / Café

The size of the law firm and its particular culture, accessibility to nearby restaurants, and the firm’s attorneys and staff have a significant impact on the size, design, quality, location and intended usage of inhouse lunchrooms. Small firms may be satisfied with a small kitchen setup, while major firms may have private partner lunchrooms with other eating facilities for staff and associate attorneys. The Café concept with barstool seating, countertops, wiring for laptops and flexible configurations for informal collaboration meetings can enhance the usability of the lunchroom.

Telco / Computer Rooms

Law firms, along with most of corporate America, have seen their telco/computer rooms shrink in size as equipment has become smaller, more powerful and efficient. Smaller firms may not require 24/7 cooling due to diminished heat loads of new hardware. Other law firms may outsource their computer room operations entirely, taking advantage of potentially significant savings and increased reliability, using third-party providers located off-site.

Parking

For some attorneys, not having a reserved parking space may be a deal breaker. On the other end of the spectrum, it may be equally important for environmentally conscious attorneys to have access to an electric charging station for their Leaf or Volt. Downtown firms where clients arrive by cab or private driver have vastly different parameters than firms catering to employees or clients dependent on public transportation. Firms with elderly clientele may be particularly conscious of life-safety and handicap access.

Strategic Planning / Lead Times

Depending on the size of a law firm and state of the particular office submarket, a lead time for firms requiring 5,000 – 10,000 ft2 can range from 9 to 18 months, and for firms requiring 10,000 – 30,000+ ft2 beginning the process 18 to 30 months before lease expiration provides the front end lead time sufficient to position the firm strategically to take advantage of its specific submarket and market conditions. Landlords may find it mutually advantageous to lower the rental rate two to three years prior to a lease expiration if the current rent is above market and provide significant tenant improvements in exchange for the financial security of a longer lease extension, thus avoiding a potential future vacancy, and enhancing financing value or salability of the property. A longer lead time allows serious consideration of opportunities that might arise unexpectedly such as the merger and relocation of a major nearby law firm, offering modern plug and play legal space at potentially favorable economic terms.

What Value is a Law Firm Tenant Specialist?

The benefits of having extensive experience in law firm representation and the industry nuances enhances value for the client. Understanding law firm design trends, privacy and security issues, as well as industry-specific considerations all serve to simplify the process, reduce or eliminate ‘surprises’ and benefit the client both financially and logistically.

In almost every instance there is no additional cost to the law firm client in availing itself of this specialized expertise as in most regions leasing fees are paid by the landlord.

Conclusion

Whether your law firm practice is part of a multi-national top ten organization or a one-location firm with less than five partners, your industry is undergoing significant technological, cultural and structural
changes that have an impact on almost every segment of the legal industry. Understanding these changes will become increasingly important in attorney hiring and retention, client satisfaction, staff retention, improved efficiency, and the bottom line now and in the future.


Jeffrey S. Weil, SIOR, CCIM, MCR.h is a Senior Vice President with Colliers International. Mr.Weil received his BS and MBA from the University of California at Berkeley and has specialized in office leasing and sales in the San Francisco Bay Area subregion of Contra Costa/Alameda Counties since 1976. One of his specific focuses, as one of the very few 100% Tenant Rep specialists, is in the exclusive representation of law firms, including long-range strategic planning, lease restructure, expansions, renewals, relocations and owner-user purchases. No landlord representation whatsoever and no conflicts of interest. His website is www.officetimes.com, and daily blog on commercial real-estate at www.blog.officetimes.com. He can be reached at 925-279-5590 jeff.weil@colliers.com The information furnished has been obtained from sources we deem reliable and is submitted subject to errors, omissions, and changes. Although Colliers International, Inc. has no reason to doubt its accuracy, we do not guarantee it. All information should be verified by the recipient prior to lease, purchase, exchange, or execution of legal documents.


Other articles you may be interested in:

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The Business of Law – Elva Harding
Office Systemsby Matthew M. Hart
Law Office Softwareby Aaron R. Feldman

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