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

Office design could seem like the least of your practice worries. But your office is a marketing tool and its design can make you more profitable. The extra thought you give to it—whether planning a new space or embarking on a makeover—will reward you for as long as you stay there.

FROM: April / May 2005, PAGE 46 BY: Suzette S. Schultz and Jon S. Schultz

Though efficiency and cost control have become the primary watchwords for law office design, there is more to consider than just dollar issues. For starters, even if you personally have little concern for aesthetics, you can be sure that others will. Therefore, when you are thinking about new office space, your plan needs to reflect an abiding concern for the effect of aesthetics on client attitudes and the attitudes of others who can help you generate clients through referrals or other means.

Let’s also add the idea of service to the client, which creates even more design plan issues. For example, clients increasingly require advanced technological capabilities of their lawyers, and this affects the office plan. As another example, lawyers increasingly split time among multiple workplaces, such as home offices and one or more shared offices or conference facilities that are more convenient for their clientele.

From budget to location to design specifications and lease negotiations, planning a new office design can be a time-consuming task—but especially for solo and small firm practitioners who lack administrative staff to tackle the challenge for them. However, because your office space is typically your second-biggest expense, it would be a serious mistake to shortchange this opportunity to boost your marketing, your efficiency and your bottom line.

To help guide you through the process, here are pointers for working with design professionals, taking advantage of some of their techniques, understanding lease arrangements, and other ways to help get the most out of your investment.

Involving a Space-Planning Professional

As tempting as it may be to try your own hand at the design work, there are numerous reasons you should seriously consider working with a design professional. 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.

To begin with, you can get help in establishing your planning budget by talking with design professionals, and the same people can help you determine whether your construction budget is realistic. Contractors and prospective landlords can also help with initial estimates for the construction budget.

Next, the professional will be invaluable in preparing the documents needed for your space plan. For projects ranging from simple room renovations to multistory, high-rise law offices, the planning effort produces two products: (1) drawings or graphic representations and (2) specifications (a list of requirements for construction). A plan and its specifications provide the information necessary for someone to estimate construction and furnishing costs with acceptable accuracy. The plan has a continuing life, as it becomes the document by which the project must be constructed and, for future maintenance, repairs and construction, it provides a record of what is behind those walls.

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 be adjacent to others. The investigation explores room capacity and mechanical requirements, as well as priorities for convenience, status, privacy and support facilities.

The “Space Design Plan Checklist” in the sidebar on page 48 will help you think about spaces and features for the design program.

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. The contents guide the designer with the job of preparing alternative designs and specifications to fit an available space or a new location. At the very least, you should write your requirements for each of these features as you consider each room.

Figuring Out Who to Hire

Design professionals divide their work into two kinds: commercial and residential. Some do both, but the kind you want for your law office is commercial. In addition to the commercial design practitioner’s professional background in dealing with regulatory matters like Americans with Disabilities Act provisions and commercial building codes, the design product is likely to be more responsive to your professional needs.

Some landlords have designers or architectural firms that can assist you. However, one word of caution about using a landlord’s design professional: Because the design professional looks to the landlord for more work, but is there to do only one job for you, he or she will usually try to please the landlord before trying to please you.

You can also bring in your own independent designer and negotiate to have the landlord pay all or part of the fees. It may be money well spent to use a little cash from your own pocket to accomplish this. Your designer can also coordinate with the contractors working in your space to save you valuable billing time.

Most law firm renovation involves the services of either an architect or an interior designer. Architects are licensed to design building structural systems as well as interior components, while interior designers limit their services to the design and construction of the space within the building envelope. For commercial buildings, both architects and interior designers sometimes retain structural engineers (for advice on the building’s structural integrity and floor loading), mechanical engineers (for help with the design and specification of heating, air conditioning and plumbing systems) and electrical engineers (for the specification of electrical systems). Architectural firms often have interior designers on staff, and many interior design firms employ architects. Architects, designers and interior decorators all provide consulting on the aesthetics of a space—such as fabrics, finishes and furniture— but the practice of interior decorators, who are not licensed professionals, is limited to those areas.

You might ask peers and other contacts if they have someone to recommend. The more law offices you see, the better idea you will have of the capabilities of various design practitioners. Lawyers and other people who work in their offices are seldom secretive about who designed their offices. They may even be quick to point out good and bad features. If there is a particular office you like, consider interviewing its designer. National professional associations such as the American Institute of Architects and the American Society for Interior Design and their local counterparts maintain listings on Web sites, which may yield some candidates. You will avoid much frustration if you can find a designer who has experience with other law firm projects. This will shorten the designer’s learning curve and let you learn from your designer (so you can keep your office from looking like Aunt Minnie’s parlor).

Reflecting the Focus of Your Practice in Your Space Plan

Beyond the essentials that make an office appear professional, your space design should target the areas that support your clients’ expectations of their legal counsel. You have some important questions to consider here.

What image do you aim to create? The focus of your practice should have a profound effect on your planning. Do not be tied to trite images of a lawyer’s offices 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. For example, your approach to technology could be used to advantage—but keep in mind that the state of the art changes quickly, and you need to avoid showcasing anything that might seem outmoded.

Who are your clients? 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 that shows off your savvy and active style of lawyering, while estate planning clients might desire an atmosphere of personal support and confidentiality. A general practice should have good-quality furnishings in public areas and a look of uncluttered competence. While your office may reflect your personality and provide indicia of your stability, your qualifications and perhaps your outside interests, keep in mind the variety of people who will come in for advice and services. Analyze your potential clientele carefully before you include your taxidermist in your office plan.

Who are your referral sources? The same issues apply. You don’t want to end up wondering if someone did not feel comfortable referring a client to you because your office conveyed the wrong image.

Location, location, location? Solo 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. Do you want to be near your clients? Do you want to go to them, or do you want them to come to you? Do you want to be close to court? It’s all a function of how you see your practice.

In most places, downtown space is more expensive than suburban space, but this is not true for every city. Office buildings in some areas are categorized as Class A, B or C. Classification follows no uniform system, but is derived from a combination of a building’s physical aspects and its location. Class A buildings are generally the best in a given area. They are well located, with excellent access, and have the best tenants, building materials and management. Rental rates follow the A, B and C classification as well.

Finding and Securing an Office Space

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.

You can either do the legwork yourself or engage a broker. The landlord, not the tenant, pays the broker’s fees. Brokers typically get 4.5 percent of every dime that you pay over the life of the lease. They know their areas, and they can advise you about current rental rates.

Most landlords have diagrams or floor plans of available space. If not, feel free to take a tape measure and a notebook and sketch the dimensions. You may also find a camera or video recorder helpful in remembering some of the details.

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. If the landlord does not provide this service, you can try doing it yourself.

Lease Arrangements and Negotiations

You may not be familiar with leasing terms such as rentable square footage and usable square footage, but it is important to understand them when looking at lease terms. Usable square footage is the actual square footage of the space. If you are a full-floor tenant, this includes the square footage in areas such as the restrooms and mechanical rooms. Usable square footage 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 an add-on factor. The add-on factor differs with every building, depending on the efficiency of the building. Rentable square footage includes your pro-rata share of common areas, such as elevator lobbies and corridors if you are located on a multitenant floor. The typical add-on is 10 to 25 percent.

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, which could 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 (and, therefore, the rent). Or you can, for example, negotiate and agree that the landlord will pay for everything up to $30 per square foot and you will pay for everything above $30 per square foot.

Look carefully at the current condition of the space you are considering, and determine the absolute minimum renovation or modification you can live with. Remember that renovations affect your rental rate and the length of your lease. They are also important matters for negotiation before the lease is signed.

Be sure to negotiate your lease to provide flexibility for the future as well. 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, so consider negotiating continguous expansion space and optional extensions to the lease.

Keeping Your Eyes on the Prize

As you move through the process, you will have plenty of people to satisfy with your planning efforts, such as lenders and guarantors, building inspectors, code inspectors, subdivision committees, safety and environmental regulators, utility companies, the post office and your spouse. However, your own satisfaction is what really counts. As you work with your space designer, broker, landlord and others, always remember that the plan you make for your office space must help your practice prosper and serve the needs of your clients. Be sure to give the entire process the rigor it deserves.


TOP 6 Space Planning Mistakes

  1. Taking more space than needed. (Your lease negotiations should include options for expanding your office into contiguous space within the building.)
  2. Not taking advantage of vertical space. (Consider all the underutilized wall space and use it to store files, books and notebooks. Space is expensive.)
  3. Forgetting to plan for storage areas.
  4. Not negotiating for contiguous expansion options.
  5. Not negotiating to have the thermostat installed in your offices rather than in a neighbor’s office.
  6. Not negotiating for some less expensive space in the building, such as the basement, for storage of inactive files.

Space Design Plan Checklist

  • Number and size of lawyer offices
  • Number and size of paralegal offices
  • Number and size of secretarial stations
  • Space for office administrator or other support staff
  • Conference room seating, facilities and amenities
  • Reception area seating—number of seats and receptionist station
  • Project workrooms (case or war rooms)
  • Administrative area (service center)
  • Spaces for copying, incoming and outgoing mail, faxing
  • Expressage
  • Printing and scanning
  • Binding
  • Deliveries and runners
  • Office supplies and storage
  • Filing
  • Centralized or decentralized
  • Library and office bookshelves, library work areas
  • Technology
  • File server
  • Telephone system
  • Security system
  • Audiovisual equipment
  • Audio teleconferencing
  • Video teleconferencing
  • Technology support staff
  • Accounting
  • In-house or outsourced
  • Storage
  • Coats
  • Exhibits
  • Evidence
  • Food service
  • No sink
  • Sink with cold water
  • Sink with hot and cold water (requires hot-water heater)
  • Under-counter refrigerator
  • Under-counter refrigerator with freezer
  • Under-counter refrigerator with freezer and ice maker
  • Full-size refrigerator with freezer and ice maker
  • Microwave
  • Under-counter ice maker
  • Coffee maker
  • Dishwasher
  • Water-purification system
  • Watercooler, bottled water
  • Watercooler, direct plumbed
  • Toaster oven
  • Vending machines—beverages
  • Vending machines—snacks
  • Space for table and chairs in coffee area
  • Space for canned drinks
  • Space for bottled water

Suzette S. Schultz ( sschultz@interiorspacedesign.com) is President of Interior Space Design, Inc. (ISD), on Galveston Island, TX, a firm specializing in law firm design throughout the United States and abroad. She consults on all aspects of law firm building, including work letter negotiation, design of facilities and project management.

Jon S. Schultz ( jschultz@uh.edu), Professor of Law at the University of Houston, is a law library expert and a registered builder. As a consultant he provides advice on buildings and disaster planning to law firms, courts and academic libraries.

Suzette and Jon’s upcoming ABA book on designing your law office is set for a summer 2005 release.