GPSolo Magazine - September 2005

Small Spaces: A Planning Primer for Solo and Small Firm Office Design

When you are thinking about new office space, your plan needs to reflect an abiding concern for the effect of aesthetics on the attitude of clients—as well as the attitude of anyone who can help you generate clients through referrals or other means. Here are some pointers for getting the most out of your investment.

Involving a space-planning professional. As tempting as it may be to try your own hand at design work, careful use of a good law firm designer can save you plenty of money in building costs, square-footage requirements, operating costs, and your own billable time.

First, a design professional can help you establish your planning and construction budgets. Contractors and prospective landlords can also help with initial estimates for the construction budget.

Next, the design professional will be invaluable in preparing the documents needed for your space plan: (1) drawings or graphic representations and (2) specifications. These documents provide the information necessary for someone to estimate construction and furnishing costs with acceptable accuracy.

Planning begins with asking questions about what your practice needs and what you would consider purchasing. The programming phase produces the data you need to shop for your office space. In this phase, checklists and interviews are used to help the space planner learn which features are important, what activities will take place in the space, and which of those activities must take place adjacent to others. The investigation explores room capacity and mechanical requirements, as well as priorities for convenience, status, privacy, and support facilities.

Armed with an analysis of the data collected from these exercises, a space planner can compile a design program. This program is typically a collection of one-page briefs on each of the necessary rooms and spaces, showing the requirements for square footage, adjacency, electricity, heating, air conditioning, lighting, equipment, and storage, as well as other factors such as security, privacy, and accessibility that affect the drawings and specifications.

Figuring out who to hire. Some landlords have designers or architectural firms that can assist you. One word of caution about using a landlord’s design professional: Because the design professional looks to the landlord for more work but will do only this one job with you, he or she will usually try to please the landlord first. Consider bringing in your own independent designer. You can negotiate to have the landlord pay all or part of the fees, but even if you use a little cash from your own pocket, it will be money well spent.

Most law firm renovation involves the services of either an architect or an interior designer. For commercial buildings, both architects and interior designers sometimes retain structural and electrical engineers. Architectural firms often have interior designers on staff, and many interior design firms employ architects.

National professional associations such as the American Institute of Architects and the American Society of Interior Designers and their local counterparts maintain listings on websites, which may yield some candidates. The more law offices you see, the better idea you will have of the capabilities of various design practitioners.

Reflecting the focus of your practice in your space plan. The focus of your practice should have a profound effect on your planning. Do not be tied to trite images of a lawyer’s office with traditional furniture in dark wood tones and duck prints on the walls. Think outside the box. Some firms prefer a fresher image that appeals to a younger generation, but keep in mind that the state of the art changes quickly, and you need to avoid showcasing anything that might seem outmoded.

People need to be comfortable with the professionals whose advice and representation determine their own success or failure. High-technology corporate clients might appreciate a clean, modern look, while estate planning clients might desire an atmosphere of personal support and confidentiality. A general practice should have quality furnishings in public areas and a look of uncluttered competence.

While your office may reflect your personality and indicate your stability, your qualifications, and perhaps your outside interests, keep in mind the variety of people who will come in for advice and services.

Finding and securing an office space. Solos and small firm lawyers have the advantage of flexibility. You can meet at clients’ offices or other convenient locations. Continued rapid development of technology increasingly gives mobile lawyers the ability to work in multiple places. Consider the possible combinations—ranging from a home office from which a lawyer makes house calls to multiple shared-office suites, obtained through borrowing, leasing, or temporarily renting “on call.”

The location of your office should depend on the demographics of your practice. In most places, downtown space is more expensive than suburban space, but this is not true for every city.

Finding and securing an office space takes longer than most realize. So start early—a minimum of six months before you expect to occupy the space, but preferably longer. If you have an existing lease, you should start looking for new space at least a year before the lease expires.

Most landlords offer a free “test fit” before signing a lease. This gives you an opportunity to compare buildings. You provide your project requirements, and the landlord has a design professional do a quick plan to see how the space would lay out under your program.

Be familiar with leasing terms such as rentable square footage and usable square footage. Usable square footage is the actual square footage of the space. It is generally considered to be anything that is not a vertical penetration, such as a fire stair, a mechanical shaft, or an elevator shaft. Rentable square footage is greater than usable square footage because it includes your pro-rata share of common areas, such as elevator lobbies and corridors if you are located on a multitenant floor.

Note that rental rates may incorporate your build-out costs. One way this is achieved is to roll construction costs into the cost of rent; financing the work this way may allow the negotiation of more favorable terms, but it also can substantially raise the amount of rent if it were prorated over the life of the lease.You can also negotiate to have a certain portion of the build-out incorporated into the lease.

Look carefully at the current condition of the space you are consid-ering and determine the absolute minimum renovation or modification you can live with. Renovations affect your rental rate and the length of your lease.

Negotiate your lease to provide flexibility for the future. If your practice is successful, your needs will be quite different than if business is less than you planned. Moving is usually more costly and disruptive than you think it will be.

Suzette S. Schultz is president of Interior Space Design, Inc., on Galveston Island, Texas; she can be reached at . Jon S. Schultz is a professor of law at the University of Houston; he can be reached at .

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