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July 2017

Today’s legal office: smaller, more flexible and more collaborative

As the legal profession has become more cost conscious, and because real estate costs are second only to salaries in law firm budgets, it’s only natural that the belt-tightening would result in a major rethinking of how office space is used. That reassessment has incorporated how the ability to work remotely has also changed how we perform our jobs.

In “Redesigning Law Offices to Accommodate the Future,” in the May/June issue of Law Practice Magazine, Barbara Dunn describes the new look and layout of today’s legal offices.

The values driving the new workplace, writes Dunn, are cost consciousness, value “and a growing emphasis on teamwork, technology and innovation.”

Dunn, a principal and studio leader at the architecture, design, planning and consulting firm Gensler’s Los Angeles office, approaches design as a tool that firms can use to gain strategic advantage.

According to Dunn, Gensler’s research shows that law firms are looking for “real estate efficiency” but also want to attract top talent and accommodate today’s work habits. Hence, the company sees law offices becoming “smaller, more flexible, more collaborative and more client-focused and technology-enabled.”

If that sounds familiar, that’s because it’s not unlike the workplace qualities found in business and consulting firms today, she writes.

Dunn says that increasingly the workplace itself “can be used as a tool for engagement, recruitment and brand equity,” and cites four ways firms are rethinking their space needs:

The private office is in play. Although lawyers need private time to focus on their work, when Gensler surveyed a group of Am Law 100 firms, they found that attorneys also wanted common areas that foster teamwork and community.

The standard partner’s office is 200 square feet and associate’s is 100 square feet, but Dunn writes that the latest trend is to have same-size offices for both, with flexible furniture options. This allows a firm to quickly and cost-effectively respond to changing space needs.

Today’s law school graduates, she writes, “want to know they will have engaging assignments, access to senior partners, the best technology, the flexibility to work from different locations and the ability to balance professional and personal lives.” Hence, the latest law offices feature personal and small group video technology, multiple screens and even shared media walls, she writes.

Another popular feature is glass-fronted offices, which convey accessibility, teamwork, transparency and sustainable practices. And Dunn writes that having glass-fronted offices allows the interior space that traditionally housed the secretaries and files to access daylight.

Design can encourage collaboration. Attorneys spend 25 percent of their day collaborating, Dunn writes, so office designs are now reflecting an effort “to build their culture, network their attorneys and lend a sense of community to dispersed or mobile workers.” Often casual, she writes that these spaces work best when they incorporate food and drink, are open and along well-traveled office routes and have buy-in and are used by senior partners.

Catch the modular wave. Modular designs allow for flexible solutions, so that the exact same area can be two offices, then house four workstations and later become a conference room, according to Dunn. “Future-proofing by pre-wiring for optional uses and demountable walls that can change space from open to closed are additional strategies,” she writes.

The client is king. Another trend is creating a number of spaces that can host visitors and clients, Dunn writes, citing the reception area, which is becoming “more of a hospitality zone, with the receptionist as the concierge.” She describes one West Coast firm whose reception area includes lounge furniture, a media wall and a barista. Another option is to be able to easily convert the reception area into space for client events or all-staff meetings by including adjacent, convertible conference rooms.

Both clients and employees appreciate amenities, Dunn writes, and Gensler’s research shows that the most coveted are a fitness center, café-style lunchroom with windows and outdoor workspaces.

Dunn concludes that as firms adopt new workplace action plans, they can improve the workday experience even as they use space and money efficiently.

Law Practice Magazine is a publication of the ABA Law Practice Division. 

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