Volume 17, Number 8
December 2000

Facilities Planning

By Marc J. Gazdecki

Lawyers pride themselves on being prepared. When we get to our office, we set about our day, organizing our strategy and advocating our clients' positions within the bounds of the law. We take pride in our work. On occasion we may even take the time to appreciate our surroundings.

When I come in to the office in the morning, I, like most of us "Dilbert" workers, turn on my office lights, boot up my computer, listen to my voice mail, return telephone calls, check my e-mail, and conduct some research on the Internet. At lunch, if I have a few spare moments not occupied by the demands of a legal practice, I may even get to turn on my Active Matrix 3.5-inch color TV to watch the afternoon news. Sometime during the day, I might visit the copier and the fax machine. With all these bells and whistles of modern technology, my work world is complete, all in the comfort of air conditioning. My office is the starting gate for "ready, set, work!"

Like our homes, our offices provide us with shelter and the means to conduct our lives. However, we often do not take the time to devote enough attention to creating surroundings that will please us and our clients.

Lawyers Practice Law, Not Architecture or Computer Science

Today, we focus on how technology can solve our problems by making our lives and businesses more efficient. Most office work is "brain work" now, our workers thinking, planning, analyzing, creating, sharing, communicating, remembering, and organizing-all cognitive, emotional, psychological activities or functions. The more we can make our technology emulate familiar human activities, the better we will be able to perform our "brain work." New and continually emerging technologies have an effect upon our work environment. People will need to dramatically change their work styles to fit into this new environment.

For example, in today's world, law office workers are able to use such technologies as:

  • Slim, portable computers, as narrow as a 1/4-inch.
  • Large CRT screens.
  • Digital scanners.
  • Digitized tablets for drawing and handwritten input.
  • Voice recognition word processing.
  • Desktop/conference room video conferencing equipment.
  • LCD projection screens for PC presentations.
  • VCR projectors with connectivity to personal computers.

The major dilemma that management must face is how their facilities can effectively accommodate the needs of their workers using these technologies. Facilities planning must be part of the law firm's business strategy. Only by coordinating strategy, technology, flexibility, space, and costs will management be able to deliver an environment that is able to respond quickly and cost-effectively to our rapidly changing world. It is critical for any technological solution to have a positive impact on the growth of the firm and its workers.

Facilities-Planning Issues

Here are some of the key facilities-planning issues related to technology:

Ergonomics and environmental concerns. People need to think more about how they are sitting, reading, and typing. When they do not-when the equipment is not "human-friendly"-our workers suffer from muscular strain, carpal tunnel syndrome, impaired blood circulation, and back problems. In addition, management needs to focus on the facility's acoustics, air quality, air temperature, and lighting.

Ergonomic design is a comprehensive, integrated approach that recognizes the relationships between the demands of the job and the needs of the worker. It combines the needs of the total work environment, including the equipment and technology, the tasks required, and the specific worker. The work environment can benefit by the analysis and applications afforded by the following disciplines: anthropometrics (comparative human measurements), biomechanics, human physiology, and even psychology.

Here are a few web resources on ergonomics:

  • More than 80 links on ergonomics.
  • "A Guide to PC Input Devices and Ergonomics," published in the August 1995 issue of the Computer Shopper.
  • A Patient's Guide to Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, an online publication by Medical Multimedia Group.
  • Adjustable Seating's ergonomic chair EquipoisE. This is a dynamic, kneel-sit chair. The makers claim it promotes perfect posture and offers superb comfort.
  • Amara's RSI Page, an essay by Amara Graps.

Legal concerns. Facilities must comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), OSHA, ANSI codes, and state and local codes. For example, the Department of Justice has published an ADA Guide for Small Business (http:// janweb.icdi.wvu.edu/kinder/pages/small_biz.html). This excerpt details the general requirements of the ADA concerning facility accessibility:

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a Federal civil rights law that prohibits the exclusion of people with disabilities from everyday activities, such as buying an item at the store, watching a movie in a theater, enjoying a meal at a local restaurant, exercising at the local health club or having the car serviced at a local garage. To meet the goals of the ADA, the law established requirements for private businesses of all sizes. These requirements first went into effect on January 26, 1992, and continue for both for-profit and non-profit organizations.

For small businesses, compliance with the ADA is not difficult. To help businesses with their compliance efforts, Congress established a technical assistance program to answer questions about the ADA. Answers to your questions about the ADA are a phone call away. The Department of Justice operates a toll-free ADA Information Line (800/514-0301 voice and 800- 514-0383 TDD). In addition, tax credits and deductions were established that can be used annually to offset many costs of providing access to people with disabilities.

In recognition that many small businesses can not afford to make significant physical changes to their stores or places of business to provide accessibility to wheelchair users and other people with disabilities, the ADA has requirements for existing facilities built before 1993 that are less strict than for ones built after early 1993 or modified after early 1992.

Private Businesses That Serve the Public Are Public Accommodations

Private businesses that provide goods or services to the public are called public accommodations in the ADA. The ADA establishes requirements for twelve categories of public accommodations, including stores and shops, restaurants and bars, service establishments, theaters, hotels, recreation facilities, private museums and schools, and others. Nearly all types of private businesses that serve the public are included in the categories, regardless of size.

If you own, operate, lease, or lease to a business that serves the public, then, you are covered by the ADA and have obligations for existing facilities as well as for compliance when a facility is altered or a new facility is constructed. Existing facilities are not exempted by "grandfather provisions" that are often used by building code officials.

Existing Facilities

Many business facilities were built without features that accommodate people with disabilities, including people who use wheelchairs. This lack of accessibility makes it impossible for many people with disabilities to take part in everyday activities such as going to work, eating in a restaurant, or shopping in a store. The ADA recognizes that, for people with disabilities to participate in the everyday activities in their communities, they need to have access to the goods and services provided by businesses. Although it is not possible for many businesses, especially small businesses, to make their facilities fully accessible, there is much that can be done without much difficulty or expense to improve accessibility. Therefore, the ADA requires that accessibility be improved without taking on excessive expenses that could harm the business.

If you own or operate a business that serves the public, you must remove physical "barriers" that are "readily achievable," which means easily accomplishable without much difficulty or expense. The "readily achievable" requirement is based on the size and resources of the business. So, larger businesses with more resources are expected to take a more active role in removing barriers than small businesses. The ADA also recognizes that economic conditions vary. When a business has resources to remove barriers, it is expected to do so; but when profits are down, barrier removal may be reduced or delayed. Barrier removal is an ongoing obligation-you are expected to remove barriers in the future as resources become available.

Wiring. As computer and telephonic/video technology gets more complicated, so too will the power and the cabling needs, necessitating that these considerations be made years in advance to prevent the need for delay and added expense for this wiring. Local Area Networking (LAN), teleconferencing, cellular communication, voice activation, and wireless Wide Area Networking (WAN) are considerations. Telecommunications cabling standards for data networks and phone systems are becoming more complex as the demand for bandwidth increases, and the requirements of the technology evolve. Installation practices and components must meet well-defined standards to ensure that these systems function properly. Therefore, you should contact your local telecommunications and networking professional for assistance. Management should make facilities planning a serious part of determining how the firm can reach a profit. Management should hire a legal technology consultant and architect consultant (it's ideal if the same person can function as both) to address such issues as:

  • System administration and maintenance.
  • Ergonomic workstations and tools.
  • Workstation setup.
  • Network design and implementation.
  • Case management systems.
  • Database configuration.
  • Internet/intranet/extranet design.
  • Web design and hosting.
  • Virtual library development.
  • Computer hardware and software training.
  • Remote access communications.
  • The creation of a change management plan that allows for human worker "buy-in" to using the new technology.
  • Accounting software choices.
A number of philosophical and operational issues also should be discussed with your consultant(s):
  • What is the image the firm wants to convey to its clients and staff; will there be uniformity of image throughout all branch offices?
  • What will be the budget for facilities planning?
  • Should alternative space be considered?
  • Should the firm hire a full-time MIS or Chief Information Officer?
The Demands of the Future

The Twelfth British and Irish Legal Education Technology Association (BILETA; www.bileta.ac.uk) Conference, "The Future of Legal Education and Practice," was held in 1998. Authors Brenells, Jones, and Walker (London, England) state in their conference paper "The Achievable Law Office-How Law May Be Practiced in 1998 and Will Be Practiced in 2002," that:

There will be fewer people employed, there will be no fax machines, less cabling since there will be wireless networks running telephone and computer systems. There will be no keyboards, screens will be larger but very different in character and printers will have changed dramatically and double-up as photocopiers. There will be far less demand for photocopiers. Workers in the paperless office will construct copies for electronic files by telling the system what documents are required for a particular electronic file, so that when the file is opened the system will retrieve the required images from wherever they are stored in order to assemble the file which has no "real" existence....Large print rooms filled with high volume copiers will cease to exist.

They continue:

Lawyers should ask themselves whether they need an office at all. Some may not. The existence of sets of chambers as we know them now or firms of [lawyers] as they operate at present, may no longer continue. There may be virtual offices wherever the lawyer is physically present with the necessary tools such as the computer terminal, electrical and telephone sockets (although both may be available via wireless systems). There may be virtual firms or virtual sets of chambers which consist of a loose commercial arrangement for sharing work and facilities without the need to share premises-which might indeed be rented when needed, as conference or meeting rooms at airports are currently rented.

Further, the authors predict:

Offices will not need space for the main computer equipment to be located alongside the users, since screens on desks will be powered from a centralized system situated in a remote location. For the larger firms these will be directly owned facilities-although their running may be out-sourced. Smaller firms may jointly own mainframes with similar sized firms, or buy time on commercially owned mainframes-or stick to the current PC networks. Firms might run their networks around the clock with the systems being used in the day by one team of lawyers and at night perhaps by a second team serving criminal clients appearing at night courts.

Finally, they hazard a prediction:

There will be no need for lawyers to come to the office every day, but only when they choose to do so in order to be physically in the presence of colleagues or clients. For all other purposes they will be able to work efficiently from home. Office premises will therefore become much smaller and money saved on them may be employed in making them more comfortable for the few staff who need to be there on a daily basis. There will be no need for archive space since the paperless office will mean that paper copies of original documents can be held, if at all, at a remote location from where they can be retrieved automatically by robots and dispatched to wherever required.

Today's world, as well as tomorrow's, demands that facilities planning be a part of a firm's business strategy. Only by coordinating strategy, technology, flexibility, space, and costs will management be able to deliver an environment that is able to respond quickly and cost-effectively to our rapidly changing world. Just as the computer has become a central workplace tool, so too will other related technologies. The workplace of the future will spring forth from the ways we work, increasing mobility, teamwork, etc. Management must be willing to consult with architectural and computer science experts to design facilities that are flexible enough to allow movement from the present to the future in incremental steps, allowing our workforces to change their work styles dramatically. This process should enable the facilities planning team from management to identify critical issues that will help them more intelligently "future-proof" their facility.

Marc J. Gazdecki is an attorney with Wayne County Neighborhood Legal Services in Detroit, Michigan. He is the newsletter editor for the ABA General Practice, Solo and Small Firm Division's Urban, State and Local Government Law Committee. He can be reached via e-mail at mgazdecki@netscape.net.

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