Re-thinking The Law Firm Workplace: Here’s How to Get Started

By Wayne Braun

For law firms, workplace efficiencies and improved office functionality have historically run a distant second to aesthetics. Oversized partner offices with large desks and credenzas, spacious law libraries, long hallways of private work spaces and spacious, in-house mock courtrooms tended to rule the day, regardless of their associated real estate costs. Some said, “that is just the way law firms are.”

That is, until a law firm comes to what many describe as a business pivot point – the decision to either renew an expiring lease or move to new space. This is particularly the case with law firms that signed 15-year leases in buildings constructed 20 - 30 years ago. While the decision to stay or go ultimately is based on costs, there certainly are other factors to take into consideration. If the firm stays, how can improvements be made without disrupting billable workflow? Is there a way to recapture existing space that is not being used effectively? On the other hand, does the cost of starting over in a new space outweigh the cost of redesigning the existing space?

Getting objective help in analyzing what the firm has, what it needs and what the partners want is the first step in this difficult task – but it is one that can pay many dividends.

Regardless of the decision reached, there is clearly a move afoot, particularly among younger partners, to create workplaces that are smarter, more efficient and support the firm’s fee generating workflow. Today’s attorneys are looking to create a workplace environment that looks less like the “Old Esquire’s” law firm and more like the offices of their profitable corporate clients. They want a lighter and brighter space that is progressive and sophisticated. They want more collaborative work settings where attorneys and support staff can mingle and share ideas openly and casually. There is a demand for more “war rooms” dedicated to particular attorneys and cases. Oversized law libraries are giving way to smaller, more efficient hallway libraries. Mock courtrooms are becoming more functional and yes, in some cases even partners are choosing to downsize their offices.

As a result of these and other changes, law firms are able to do much more than just get a new look and feel. They reduce their real estate costs, lower operating and personnel costs and above all, increase productivity and ultimately profitability. The most important concept in creating a more effective workplace lies in designing space that fosters collaboration. For many firms, the opportunity to share information at unexpected locations in the office has proven invaluable. New ideas to consider include using lounge seating arrangements, open library concepts and more gracious, lounge-like coffee bars.

Still another step in creating a more efficient law firm workplace is to locate the primary conference rooms near the entry to ease meeting set up as well as eliminate the need to escort visitors through a corridor of private offices. This provides a more efficient use and scheduling of the rooms and reduces the staff time dedicated to maintaining and serving these rooms. The centralized space also allows a firm to focus its meeting technologies and higher quality finish dollars into one area.

A workplace redesign also should address acoustics. The realities of speaker phones, conference calls and computer speakers can lead to sound separation issues. Despite the need to work in a more collaborative environment, attorneys still need their privacy. Since noise travels from office to office through plenum space above the ceiling, acoustical padding or “pony walls” (extending the walls above the acoustical ceiling) should be considered to create a quieter, and ultimately more productive, workplace setting.

When it is time to weigh the pros and cons of renewing a lease or moving to new space, remember a new workplace can do much more than simply give a law firm a new look and feel, it can improve the bottom line.

Wayne Braun
Wayne is a nationally awarded and recognized Designer of corporate office spaces, best known for his attention to the character, quality and long-term functionality of his work.