Return to site home page


Law Firms Jump Onboard

This final frontier of traditional workplace design begins to mold itself to the needs and wants of a younger generation.

By Jim Phillips, AIA, Founder, TPG Architecture

This final frontier of traditional workplace design begins to mold itself to the needs and wants of a younger generation.

Walk into a law firm today in New York, Chicago or San Francisco and you may be surprised. Long the bastion of traditional workplace design, many legal offices have come to embrace design trends more commonly seen in ad agencies, design firms or other creative businesses.

Technological innovation, competition, the downturn in the economy and shifts in work style have all contributed to this sea change in the design of law offices.

Law firms compete to hire and retain the best and brightest, especially in our challenging economic climate. The most successful firms have learned to leverage the design of their offices to project an image of sophistication and modernity to both clients and recruits. Style and design help define and differentiate a practice, and establish a consistent brand and culture across multiple offices. While the best design was historically reserved for partner offices and areas where clients met, it now often extends to all aspects of the work place.

The most common complaints voiced by associates, as found in a recent American Lawyer survey, are the lack of transparency and poor communication. In response, innovative law firms such as Torys in New York City are adopting glass-fronted offices and meeting rooms to promote transparency. To ensure confidentiality and prevent staff disruption, senior partners are holding fewer client meetings in their private offices, driving demand for more conference rooms and flexible meeting spaces in the office. Additionally, senior partners often enjoyed their own personal conference rooms, often adjacent to their offices—now even small conference rooms are shared by two or more partners, or more often by attorneys who are in that general area.

As workplace demographics skew younger, there is a marked shift in priorities. Associate-level staff are keenly interested in establishing a work/life balance and expects the opportunity to work from home when it is possible. At the same time, junior staff, understanding that they will be spending very long hours at the office on a regular basis, want to know that their need for additional amenities and perks are being recognized—among others, a series of flexible workspaces that support cross disciplinary teams and are often configured for videoconferencing, classroom/training programs, moot courts and more. This evolving workplace also embraces employee diversity by offering spaces that respond to people’s personal needs, such as wellness or lactation rooms or private prayer spaces.

Both new attorneys and associates are more likely to embrace universal, standard private office sizes as opposed to the traditional hierarchy of spaces. Rather, they expect enhanced communal spaces, including well-designed cafes and break rooms that can also serve as lounges and informal meetings spaces. These areas foster collaboration and interaction.

Purrington Moody Weil is a great example of this, offering a loft-like setting in New York’s Meatpacking district, complete with an open café and expansive outdoor terrace where attorneys can relax, work and socialize at all hours.

Planning for change is a key driver for law firms. This means enhancing their ability to allow for change to occur while minimizing the cost of that change over the term of their lease. Functional requirements for paralegals, secretaries, war rooms, filing, printing and meeting areas can be achieved with furniture solutions, instead of rigid drywall partitions. This flexible planning approach allows the space to be reconfigured at a minimal cost as cases and clients, and the teams that support them, grow and change. Modular case rooms—large spaces without permanently fixed walls—can be shifted and reconfigured as cases are resolved and new needs established.

After salaries, real estate fees are the second highest cost to a law firm’s bottom line. Many firms are now reducing rentable area from 750-800 square feet to 600-700 square feet per attorney. Some law firms around the country have been able to achieve even lower ratios by implementing alternative real estate strategies more commonly seen in other professional service industries, such as accounting. These strategies include: finding space in non-traditional neighborhoods (which Purrington did), significantly reducing its rent overhead; establishing a universal office size for every attorney, creating interior offices off of the window wall, and increasing the number of shared offices and open office workstations.

By outsourcing support functions such as accounting, word processing and IT to less expensive suburban locations, or out of the country altogether, large firms can reduce real estate costs. Shifting support groups to either lower floors in urban settings or suburban locations also allows for more flexibility in the overall office design. Smaller private offices, ranging from 120-150 square feet for associates and 175-225 square feet for partners, coupled with the doubling up of first-year associates and creating interior offices for second-year associates, are all innovative space planning solutions we have used on projects. Attorney-to-administrative ratios are dropping, often to 4:1, allowing for fewer and smaller secretarial workstations.

Technology has had a significant impact on reducing square footage requirements in the legal workplace. With the use of electronic research databases, firm libraries have shrunk from 20-25 square feet to 10-15 square feet per attorney. The increased ratio of support staff to attorneys I’ve noted is a direct result of attorneys using software/technology to manage their own schedules and communications/correspondence.

The sea of paper on which law firms used to float is disappearing. Electronic filing and records management equals smaller file room requirements, while offsite servers and cloud computing free up additional valuable real estate. Evolving PC technology, including laptops and tablet computers, has led to smaller desks and worksurfaces for all levels of staff.

Law firms, like all businesses, are increasingly obligated to demonstrate a commitment to environmental responsibility; retaining the best candidates from the most prestigious schools includes meeting their concerns about energy efficiency, sustainable materials, indoor air quality and even waste management.  The benefits of environmental consciousness go beyond paying lip service to employees and clients through token gestures. Evidence-based design has shown that sustainable practices can improve employee well-being, increase productivity, reduce energy costs and reduce sick days.

Green design choices include using glass-fronted offices and conference rooms, which, when coupled with the lower heights of interior workstations, allow sunlight to filter deeper into a space and cut electric bills (this is also achieved with motion-activated lighting sensors). Sustainable practices, including recycling programs and the installation of energy efficient HVAC and lighting systems, reduce waste and leads to lower operational costs.

Back in the era of Mad Men, burying the firm in dark mahogany paneling, hanging oil portraits of the senior partners and having crystal in the private dining rooms all communicated stability, security and sound legal judgement. Half a century later, law firms are changing with the times, investing in hard-working spaces that will be comfortable for their employees, that are fiscally responsible, environmentally sustainable and are stylish as well.