By Tara Roscoe
Change on the Horizon
Law firms have been under enormous pressure to evolve their workspaces to align with the vast changes that are happening now, and will only continue in the future, to the practice of law. Several sources, including Cushman & Wakefield’s past issues of Legal Briefs, have suggested that the pressure on billing rates (moving to fixed fees), the increase of commoditized work / outsourcing tasks, and competition to attract top talent are of primary concern and will impact both processes, operations, and inevitably, how law firms are designed. Tech savvy younger associates who are hungry for opportunities to learn and be mentored within collegial collaborative teams will add additional pressure on firms to evolve and embrace more progressive work styles and settings.
Outside the legal sector, clients in industries such as finance, technology, and media, have worked with their designers to reimagine and reinvent their work environments to support rapidly evolving businesses. For law, a more risk adverse industry, the growing pains appear heftier. As US law firms have looked to densification strategies such as single size offices and targeted efficiency models of 600 square feet per attorney or less, they are increasingly seeking insight on how to better evolve their workstyles to adapt. Too often, they are caught between tradition (and reinforcing hierarchy) and a desire for innovation and change. In an attempt to push their own boundaries and seek more progressive workstyles, law firms can learn from several successful workplace design precedents.
What is Everybody Else Doing?
The technology, financial, and media industries are the ones driving current workplace trends that are being deployed today. These companies, and a few progressive law firms, have grasped a keen understanding that younger generations of the work force want to work in stylized environments that support collaboration, reinforce a flattened non-hierarchical structure, hold trust-based policies and processes that encourage mobility and movement, health and wellness, diversity, and agile work models. Their workplaces increasingly are taking on more hospitality-like and residential characteristics with cues coming from a variety of non-workplaces such as hotel lobbies, restaurants/cafes, co-working environments, business clubs, retail, spas, and gym facilities. The overarching message is: offices should look less and less like an “office”.
Law firms are increasingly interested in hearing and seeing what trends are emerging from outside of the legal sector. What is everyone else doing? For most of the corporate office landscape, workplace design is focusing and prioritizing the following design drivers:
- Health and wellness (i.e. sit-stand desks, promote physical movement over sedentary stillness)
- High touch/Concierge level of user experience
- Non-corporate, hospitality look and feel
- Top quality amenities (i.e. best coffee, great food)
- Maximized transparency (i.e. access to light, views)
- Seamless and intuitive technology
- Democratization of space
- Untethered staff – Agile working (providing variety and choice)
- Blurred boundaries between formal and informal, ‘work’ and ‘social,’ client facing and staff areas
Global Issues and Differentiators
Concerns over billing rates, outsourcing, retaining and attracting talent, providing environments to encourage mentoring, collaboration, and collegiality integrating sophisticated technology are not restricted to law firms within the United States. These concerns are global in nature, changing the complexion of the workplace. Interestingly, although the issues driving change in law firm design are global in nature, design solutions have diverged quite differently. What is viewed as a progressive workplace model in the US is understood to be the status quo in many other parts of the world. As law firms in the US recently have accepted single size offices, law firms in both Australia and the UK have moved far beyond this to more hybrid, flexible, and agile working models. In some cases, all attorneys are supported through open plan concepts.
Although the US and Australia are aligned culturally in so many ways, it’s fair to speculate the key causal reasons for variation in our design models:
- US law firms are often hierarchy focused: Defining how hierarchy translates into the design of office space is still a top priority for law firms in the United States. As firms increasingly speak about a desire (need) to revolutionize, they are often paralyzed to do so, as they continue to be inclined to align workspaces to titles. While Millennials are seemingly repelled by celebrating entitlement, in the US, Baby Boomers are still the key decision makers leading how new office space gets defined. In Australia, there appears to be a greater enthusiasm and support to push younger generations into the design conversation to help drive change. In Australia there is a notable push for duo-mentoring (mentoring up and down) with seasoned attorneys mentoring juniors in the practice of law while at the same time new younger attorneys who embrace tech-rich working styles are expected to mentor in the other direction. It is expected that they will be the ones who will drive real change and create momentum around new ways of working.
- Real estate costs and occupancy efficiencies are leading motivators for change in the US: As law firms pursue an ideal RSF/per attorney occupancy (today +/- 600 SF), enthusiasm for workplace innovation often enters the dialog as a means to achieve this. In Australia, the motivation to evolve workspace is being instigated more by leadership’s vision to evolve the business model. This is not to say that Australian firms don’t benefit from denser and more efficient planning, but rather the key motivator is not cost savings alone and instead is being driven by an earnest quest to evolve the processes and practice of law.
- Focus on the future and the greater good: It’s fair to acknowledge that the Australians have shown more of a willingness to experiment and have committed to adjusting their individual work styles, habits, and traditions more readily than their US counterparts for the benefit of the greater good. There are several progressive examples where newer law firm environments can support the foundational aspects of the practice (i.e. client confidentiality) while at the same time celebrating transparency, collaboration, and mentoring without building out traditional, four-walled, and assigned offices.
Local to Global to Local
Law firms are facing a shift in priorities of incoming classes and pressures upon the profession itself. It is inevitable that more nimble, open, and agile working environments will gain popularity within law firm design. As fixed fees and fee compression are projected to be the driving force behind business competition for the next decade are expected to become increasingly the norm, a speed-to-market mindset will push the practice of law to find ways of working that maximize efficiency, streamline operations, decrease overhead, and to ultimately increase profits. Having workspace that keeps people isolated, detached, and/or disconnected will not support the dynamic teams of lawyers in the future.
The article above first appeared in Cushman & Wakefield’s Legal Briefs, Vol. 1 2019. To read the full version, download the legal brief here.