The Evolving Legal Workplace Design Paradigm
Any successful business must keep pace with – and ideally be ahead of – change. Driven by continuous developments in technology; heightened awareness of employee well-being; advances in sustainable practices; the pursuit of knowledge sharing; an expanded generational workforce; and the rising impact of real estate costs, today’s law office differs from its predecessors of 20 years ago, 10 years ago, or even five years ago.
What’s driving this change? Many of the same internal and external forces that affect almost every other workplace.
Drivers of change in the legal workplace. Graphic by DLR Group.
Traits of a Progressive Legal Workplace
Today’s law firms have re-engineered the business model to adapt to a transforming workforce that is increasingly agile and competitive. For many firms, the fee basis and compensation model has evolved, and competition is no longer limited to other law firms. While certainly not a one-size-fits-all solution, there are many traits that characterize the latest themes in legal workplace design.
Real estate is a typical firm’s second largest expense after salaries, so the cost, the quantity, and the maximization of office space remains a keen priority. The number one target remains fixed on reducing the overall footprint, or allocation of square footage per attorney. While the private office is still en vogue, the size of offices and the amount of dedicated personal space continues to shrink. Frequently, this reclaimed square footage is allocated to common and shared use spaces such as break rooms, meeting rooms, and collaborative amenity space, as well as alternative work venues for both heads-down and interactive work. The physical location of the office is also a focus for potential expense reduction, with many firms opting to vacate what are considered premier locations on the upper floors of Class A towers in favor of lower floors, or less expensive peripheral properties. Additional space optimization targets include incremental contraction in file space, disappearing libraries, and an increased percentage of open office and shared office spaces.
Captured square footage is now reallocated to common and shared use spaces. Graphic by DLR Group.
Change is imminent, and flexibility in the workplace is key to maximizing real estate investment and long-term success. Anticipating even less paper, fewer books, changing support ratios, and advancements in technology, it has become imperative for designers of the legal workplace to apply a philosophy focused on adaptability.
Considerations for an adaptable approach include modular room sizing that can allow today’s file room or library to become offices or meeting spaces in the future, as well as multi-functional rooms and spaces, flexible furniture, movable partitions in place of fixed walls, and incorporation of systems furniture rather than millwork for easy rearrangement or re-purposing of space in the future.
Fox Rothschild in Minneapolis by DLR Group. Photo by Susan Gilmore.
Variety in Work Modes
In a world where technology dominates face-to-face communication and new attitudes and aptitudes drive cultural shifts, law firms are resorting to an intervention of sorts. Much like corporate America, the legal workplace is offering greater variety in how and where work takes place with settings that support focused tasks, as well as planned and serendipitous interaction.
Studies show that a retreat from a steady work venue fosters greater creativity and cognitive productivity. Balancing heads-down concentration space with collaboration areas, the legal profession is allocating a greater percentage of real estate to communal, more collegial space such as informal and/or impromptu meeting venues, enhanced break areas, and collective conference centers that offer variety and modularity. Embedded technology throughout the office is critical to supporting a more fluid work process, less paper, and more unscheduled interaction.
Incorporating choice in work venues should not imply multiplying square footage. A multi-functional mindset extends to the utilization of real estate. Flexible furniture, walking stations, accommodations for standing meetings, a variety of settings in break room spaces, or moveable partitions that expand to change the experience of a room are all strategies to maximize real estate application while providing inherent choice in work venues.
@9 Amenity Center in Minneapolis by DLR Group. Photo by Brandon Stengel.
In the current legal workforce shortage, declining law school enrollment, and a greater focus on work/life balance, the partnership dialogue has grown to include topics such as culture, brand, lifestyle, social interaction, family friendliness, diversity, and health and wellness. Studies show that investments in ergonomics, fitness, movement, healthy food options, daylighting, acoustics, and indoor air quality lead to greater productivity, enhanced creativity, and overall employee wellbeing. Catering to a multi-generational workforce, today’s law firms are curating employee-centric experiences aimed at both attracting and retaining great talent.
Building landlords are sharing in this responsibility by upgrading their properties with lifestyle-focused amenities including social gathering spaces, fitness rooms, spaces for recreation and relaxation, outdoor areas, technology-rich conference rooms, and entertainment venues. Their focus is on features that play a big role in defining the day-in-the-life of the employee.
Norton Rose Fulbright in Dallas by DLR Group. Photo by Nick Merrick, Hedrich Blessing.
A look into the future
The transformation of the legal workplace has been incremental, taking cues from the broader corporate workplace. While precedence and trends will continue to trickle into law office design, there are a growing number of firms separating themselves from the pack and venturing into new territory. While not the legal benchmark, there are law firms today that are entirely mobile, firms that operate in a free address environment, firms that incent attorneys to sit in open office cubicles, firms that average less than 200 SF per person, and firms that provide napping pods.
Drawing upon our local and national practice, DLR Group’s research-backed, stakeholder-driven design process helps our legal clients leverage the workplace as a tool to positively influence business outcomes. Every law firm has a distinctive culture and thumbprint. As these employers strive for efficiency, effectiveness, and attraction of the brightest talent, the legal workplace will continue to be an important tool in shaping the industry’s ultimate success.
Research is a critical part of our approach to workplace design. Read a round-up of our favorite research studies that give our clients a data-driven look at why workplace features such as views are worth the investment.
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