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Designing for Millennials: Trends in Law Firm Office Space

Jeffrey S. Weil, August 01, 2015

The legal industry is continuing to seek answers to a multitude of key questions, confronting how law firms house and run their practices: Reducing per attorney overhead through office space reduction; fostering collaboration and teamwork while still providing sufficient private space for focus work; dealing with the baby-boomer senior partners while at the same time satisfying the needs of the sometimes very different millennials; and incorporating technology, permeating throughout the law firm process, with often significant impacts on the “type” and size of sub-functions within today’s law practice.

On top of all this are the changing client types, more value-conscious than in previous decades, but often still expecting first-class facilities along with first-class service.

Doug Zucker, a leader of Gensler’s Professional Service Firm Practice Area, commented that millennial lawyers are not always representative of all of the traits of their peer group that we are constantly reading about. While enjoying the opportunity to work from different work settings both in and out of the office, they, like their predecessors, still value a private office as a reward of the job.[1]

Reports citing examples of four associates officed in a single private office are not happening here. There is also not a lot of attorney shared office scenarios. Lawyers typically spend about twice the time in focused work as most other professionals, and as such value the qualities that a private office is quite effective at providing. Zucker mentioned that in the United Kingdom, 20 percent of law offices are open plan, but that trend has not spread to the U.S. There are several law firms trying out some open plan scenarios as trials however, so stay tuned.

For the most part, there are two basic office sizes for U.S. law firms: 120-150 square feet for associate attorneys and 180-225 square feet for partner offices. Formerly, senior partners might have small conference tables within their private office for client meetings, but now clients typically meet in one of the firm’s conference rooms.

These conference rooms, which for some large law firms can take up an entire floor, are usually located just off the main reception for security and convenience. This approach eliminates clients or opposing attorneys wandering through the halls where they could potentially be exposed to confidential information, and also facilitates ease of servicing for food and audiovisual equipment.

Zucker also commented that it is not uncommon for major law firms to downsize their footprint at lease renewal or as a part of a relocation, as functions which used to be prominent at a law firm now may be either substantially reduced in size or eliminated altogether.

Law libraries have been, for the most part, digitalized and dwindling for years, and legal secretaries which in times past many have been at a 2:1 ratio (two attorneys to one staff), may today be at an 5:1 ratio or even higher. Combined with the continual digitalization of records, this has left core space unused. It is now commonplace to put associate offices into the interior, increasing the efficiency of the law office.

office_design_2Law firm cafes can emphasize informal meeting locations, places where emails can be caught up on laptop or tablet, and some law firms have designed their lunchroom cafe to be the largest meeting space in their facility able to hold “all hands” meetings. Contract attorneys brought in for research or litigation might sit side by side at low tables or desk-benches, similar to high-tech layouts.

For those looking further into the future, there are firms experimenting with the Watson’s type powerful IBM computers with artificial intelligence now capable of handling less complex legal issues such as wills and trusts. The computer might accomplish the first few layers of putting together the legal documents and then an actual live attorney completes the process and handles any nuances. What does this mean for future law firm space design? More automation of process, resulting in a reduced need for office space.

Brittany Whitley, Director of Workplace Strategy/Business Development with Hogue, sees firms exploring workplace solutions that not only better support today’s work styles and technology advancements, but also support an effort to introduce environments that incorporate more efficient, agile planning strategies.

As square footage is at a premium and law firms typically commit to longer lease terms, firms are being mindful of the workstyle evolution that may accompany the future generation of leaders (who are likely just starting law school, if not undergrad). Alternative means in housing attorneys, such as interior offices, shared offices, or even open planning concepts are being considered, in conjunction with supporting elements such as one- to two-person focus rooms, four- to six-person meeting rooms and open collaboration areas.

office_design_1While offices have not been eliminated, they have significantly decreased in size ranging from 125-175 square feet. Many firms are adopting “same-size” office policies, as well standardized furniture in an effort to better accommodate internal shifts and minimize costs. In an effort to further inform smart planning strategies, firms are not only referencing benchmarks and strategies of peers and competitors, they are also looking to positive methodologies that their clients and outside industries may employ.

Culture remains king, however, so efforts to introduce square footage efficiencies, new policies and planning concepts are gingerly approached, ever-mindful of improving the overall experience and supporting a strong sense of cultural connectivity.

A recent article in the Washington Post titled “End of the corner office: D.C. law firm designs its new space for millennials,” discusses how for some firms, the majority of people now in the law office won’t be there in 15 years. Their thought was, “Who are we building for?”

In this one example, all offices, regardless of associate or partner status, are of the same size. All offices have glass walls to let light through and where in the past the corner office would have been, there are now team meeting rooms for collaboration. Millennials want balance in life, flexibility and mobility when, where and how they work. Sustainability is important, and they want to make an impact and difference in and on the world.[2]

According to Colin Scarlett, one of Colliers International top law firm leasing specialists in Vancouver, Canada, a third of law firms in London are open-planned, with lawyers of all levels sitting in the middle of a space in cubicles. But, in his article titled “Are Open-Plan Office Spaces Good for Law Firms?” Tim Baran cautions “…. make sure you have enough conference room for meetings and client engagements, and privacy booths for laser focused work and quiet, creative time. Throw in the option to work remotely for a couple of days each week, and you’ve covered the bases for a flexible, collaborative, productive law firm.”[3]

According to a recent report by Knoll, the office furniture design company, titled “The Emerged Law Practice: Progressive Traits of the Modern Law Office,” “A younger, more technology fluent demographic embraces change, even in the context of an existing office population that often protects the status quo.” The future law firm has a layout that is both logical as well as flexible and supports both focused work as well as space for collaboration.[4]

In a blog titled “Leaner and Greener: 2015 Office Space Trends,” by the Butler Burgher Group, they noted that “[a]ccording to an American Lawyer report, law firms typically occupy two or three times as much space per employee as banking, insurance or technology firms. Now, along with downsizing, law firms are embracing new workplace designs along the lines of their corporate clients; in fact, they will come to look more like business consulting firms with smaller, flexible, collaborative workspaces.”[5]

The legal industry has been one of the last groups to change their traditional thinking of why and how they do business, but the pressures of economics, technology and demographical change in partners are forcing a re-thinking to embrace new, more flexible traditions.

According to a January 14, 2015, report by the Colliers “Practice Group Insights: Law Firm Services,” 32 percent of the top 200 law firms that are re-working their space are reducing in size, many firms are moving to single size offices, 48 percent outsource discovery, 35 percent outsource document review and 18 percent outsource legal research.

The primary driver for the new legal workplace is the changing demographic employee pool with the oncoming onslaught of millennials who desire flexibility, mobility, less hierarchy, interesting work and work/life balance. The majority of the baby boomers are expected to retire by 2016-2020. “Less is more utilizing thoughtful space reduction while simultaneously increasing headcount.”[6]

Othon Benavente of Studio Benavente Architects in Walnut Creek, who specializes in the Contra Costa region, said, “What I see in the suburbs is a flatter hierarchy, but still window offices, and more firms are set up like executive suites which are rented to single practitioners or smaller law firms that share their space and share resources. This provides future expansion space.” Benavente still sees traditional wood unless the space is a major remodel or relocation.

What does this all mean for the suburban legal practice? How much of these future trend ideas have permeated out into the outlying office regions such as Walnut Creek and Concord? Unfortunately, very little change has taken place and for the most part, traditional private offices and wood paneling still abound in the suburbs.

Several factors may be responsible for this non-change phenomenon. Much lower rental rates, for example, Walnut Creek rents are 35-45 percent less than equivalent San Francisco office rents, while Concord rents are 65 percent less. This reduces the stress of having to downsize due to economics being the driving factor. Additionally, while San Francisco currently has over 8 million feet of new Class A office buildings under construction, Contra Costa has none and no new office building is even on the horizon. This greatly reduces the relocation to premier buildings with law firms often leading the charge.

As the baby boomers continue to retire and millennials slowly take over management, some “cool” factors may come to suburban law office design, but, in the author’s opinion, those changes will be slow in coming.

[1] Gensler Legal Innovation Lab (2015), “How will lawyers work in the future?” Gensler.

[2] Schulte, B. (2015), “End of the corner office: D.C. law firm designs its new space for millennials,” The Washington Post.

[3] Baran, T. (2015), “Are Open-Plan Office Spaces Good for Law Firms?” Legal Productivity.

[4] Wymer, T. (2012), “The Emerged Law Practice: Progressive Traits of the Modern Law Office,” White Paper, Knoll, Inc.

[5] Butler Burgher Group (2015), “Leaner and Greener: 2015 Office Space Trends,” Blog, Butler Burgher Group, LLC.

[6] Colliers University (2015), “Practice Group Insights: Law Firm Services,” Colliers International.

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