In Touch with Tenants: Six Trends Reshaping Law Firm Buildout

Spring 2013
Formerly, each law firm partner had one administrative person located outside of his/her office; today, one administrative person supports four or five partners. Photo courtesy of Cooper Carry

Many law firms have been slower than their corporate brethren to adopt innovative techniques for maximizing office space at the lowest cost. Due to a more competitive law firm environment, and the desire to use money spent on office space elsewhere in the firm, change is coming to even the most traditional organizations.

Brian Parker, AIA, senior associate, and Richard Stonis, director of interior architecture, Cooper Carry, Atlanta, were hired by the law firm, Kilpatrick Townsend, to design and construct three offices in major markets totaling 337,000 square feet, over a three-year period. The markets included New York, Washington, D.C. and Atlanta. Based on this assignment and their experience in designing space for other law firms, they have identified six key trends that developers, building owners and property managers need to know to attract and retain new law firm tenants.

Brian Parker

Brian Parker

1. Changing employee ratios. The old-time law firm had a “watchdog” administrative person outside every partner’s office. Today, one administrative person supports four or five partners, resulting in less demand for office space.

2. Rethinking public-private spaces. In the past, law firms have spent large amounts of money on interior finishes throughout the entire facility. Parker and Stonis, for example, recall visiting a firm that featured a two-story reception area of marble and the finest woods “as far as the eye could see.” Additionally, each partner office featured high-cost finishes because that was where the attorney typically met with the client. Now, law firms want to differentiate between public and private spaces to reduce costs, allocating finishing dollars to meeting rooms, and selecting more cost effective materials for attorney offices. Law firms are creating conference areas near the front door of the office so attorneys can meet clients in rooms that vary in size. They range from meeting spaces for two people up to major spaces that can accommodate 40 to 100 people.

Richard Stonis

Richard Stonis

3. New space design flexibility. Cooper Carry has stressed the need for flexible workspace to its law firm clients. Law firms like the idea of flexibility in office design for employees below the partner and associate levels. Cooper Carry incorporates modularity, including moveable wall systems, into interior space with some projects. At one firm, they created an internal module that could be used and adjusted as a single, double or triple space. As a single, the module might be a “huddle room,” mini-conference room, paralegal office or mini- library within a practice group. A double space might be used by a case assistant with technology or as a “war room” where documents can be stored and secured for ongoing cases. As a triple space, it can serve as an open office for paralegals and assistants.

4.  Growth and evolution of technology. The growth and changes in the way technology is used has revolutionized corporate environments and is now impacting legal offices. Technology is affecting the law firm in a number of interesting ways. Attorneys coming out of law school today are tech savvy, using their iPad or computer for a good deal of their legal writing. Older attorneys, not tech savvy or tech resistant, might prefer to write out their legal arguments on a yellow legal pad and have their administrative staff input the information into the computer.

The Cooper Carry team noted that technology has also changed the way legal research is conducted, permanently altering the typical law firm library. Older lawyers tend to prefer the library, while younger attorneys work with legal sites and digitized books on the Internet. While Cooper Carry does not predict the demise of the law library, the company believes it will take up significantly less space in the future.

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5. Standardization of offices. The concept of a standardized office in a law firm is a leading edge trend that has not been adopted by many firms and, in fact, is often unwelcome at the partner level. Traditionally, associate attorneys might have a 10- by 15-foot office. If, and when, they made partner, they were given a 15- by 15-foot office, and perhaps a decorating budget of $20,000 to $25,000 to get that space finished to their liking. Often, new partners would bring in their own decorators to design their offices. As law firms have changed, merged and acquired practices and groups within practices, the costs of the physical change have been staggering. The Cooper Carry team noted that younger attorneys are more cost conscious and willing to consider a standard office.

6. Sustainability. Sustainability is critical to a law practice. Cooper Carry considers sustainability a branding and marketing tool for attracting the best and the brightest attorneys out of law school because it creates a fresh, light-filled, productive physical environment in which to work. Secondly, law firm clients like the idea of sustainability. If a client is choosing between firms and one is more environmentally forward than the other, this could be the tipping point in the selection.