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Redesign the office to keep up with industry and technology changes

Take a look around your workplace.

Does it reflect the traditional image of a law firm—a somber place of serious business with an abundant supply of mahogany furniture and thick, intimidating books? Is there a field of empty workstations once filled by staff members now long gone? Is it cluttered? Is it sterile? Is it pleasing to the eye? Is it time for a change?

The workplace of today has changed, both for your clients and for the new wave of attorneys and staff that you’re looking to hire. Some of these changes reflect the new collaborative approach to work, as well as the trend toward a healthier work-life balance.

Accommodating the needs of potential employees might not be the best reason to undergo a major renovation, but the legal industry is changing and there are other reasons to consider a redesign, such as the consolidation of practices and major changes in technology. The need to increase cost efficiencies is also affecting the legal industry and, as leases come up for renewal, many firms plan to downsize, opting for a more open layout and smaller offices.

If it’s time for your office to undergo a redesign, it’s not recommended that you simply banish all offices and turn the whole floor into an open collaborative workspace. According to Linda Kano, president of Interior Showplace, one size does not fit all; every organization has a different culture that helps determine which office layout is most appropriate.

The workplace can help shape creative and engaged workers,” says Kano. “(This is done by) considering a variety of places and spaces for groups and individuals to work, creating open space but also private spaces to think and focus.”

Here are some factors to consider before you embark on an office redesign:

Consider your workflow

Use your office redesign as an opportunity to help fine-tune work processes and boost productivity. For example, have your staff-to-attorney ratios changed, requiring more efficient workstations for the support staff?

Take a look at how your existing space is currently being used. Are there areas that are overcrowded or underutilized? Is there gridlock in the corridor? Do team collaborations affect other workers nearby who require quiet to focus? Ask employees to take notes of where and why they move throughout the day. This will help you gain some insight into areas that may be adversely affecting productivity.

Consider the life of a file

You should also examine the life of a typical file. Often, files migrate from one desk to another, moving from focused work to collaborative. Are different work zones required for different stages of completion? Perhaps you need a variety of collaborative spaces, including informal nooks or one-on-one meeting spaces, complete with Wi-Fi and electronic screens, so that several team members can work on a file without the formality of a conference room. If boxes of paper line your hallways, perhaps a project room or a “war room” would best serve your needs. Or maybe you just need a café concept in the lunchroom, with bar stools set below countertops, and appropriate electric connectivity, allowing iPads and laptops.

While you’re at it, maybe this is the time to explore moving to a paperless system for storing files. Digital files, which allow for easy access and file sharing, can be convenient, save time, reduce on-site storage demand and reduce the costs of paper.

Consider your staff

Bring the entire staff together to collaborate on the space and design so there are no surprises and to promote “buy-in” of the change. Explains Trisha Nomura, partner, PKF Pacific Hawaii, “When employees are happy with their physical space, it definitely impacts the way they work.”

For example, while many younger, tech-savvy workers feel more comfortable in an open workspace, not everyone embraces the lack of privacy associated with this layout. Open workspaces can affect productivity for those who require peace and quiet to focus, or those who need a soundproof space to hold confidential discussions. You might need to compromise by providing a combination of private cubicles and offices, with an open workspace for collaboration in the middle.

When designing individual workspaces, remember also to address ergonomics, information confidentiality, entry to the workspace, and personal comfort, such as a place to display family photos or store a change of clothes.

You’ll also want to find out how your lawyers feel about the idea of a one-size-for-all office, a trend for many of today’s law firms. “In most firms, the largest component of the real estate is the attorney offices,” says Sue Kerns, Principal, ZGF Architects LLP.

“By reducing the size of the attorney offices or going to one-size offices, overall real estate costs can be reduced.” But, Kerns points out, “the cultural challenge of one-size offices should be explored and understood before embarking on a culture-shifting office design; while a number of firms have navigated this change successfully, many firms face resistance. An understanding of barriers and the culture is fundamental to moving a law firm in a new direction.”

The same goes for the law library. While some attorneys prefer to work with legal sites and digitized books on the Internet, others still prefer the traditional law library. It’s important to understand the preferences of your current attorneys, as well as those you hope to recruit in the near future.

Consider your clients

How will these changes affect your clients? Are they frugally minded and perhaps resent what they consider a wasteful and frivolous use of money? Or will they appreciate your efficient use of space and environmentally conscious furniture?

According to Kerns, “A law firm’s office environment should establish or reinforce the firm’s brand and in turn display an identity and culture to all that enter.” How will your clients feel with your newly expressed culture? Are they young entrepreneurs who will welcome a fresh new look or are they traditional business people who don’t want to see a beanbag chair in their lawyer’s office?

Consider how your clients will use your space. Do they require privacy or WiFi while they wait in the reception room? Is there sufficient lighting and a comfortable surface where they can work? Keep in mind the unique needs of employees or clients with disabilities or special physical needs. This includes providing wheelchair-accessible restrooms, outdoor wheelchair ramps and barrier-free pathways from the reception area to the meeting rooms.

The conference center, where clients are hosted, is the focal point of most firms and is the area that makes the biggest statement about your firm’s brand and culture. When designing the conference center, you need to consider soundproofing, accessibility and power needs for laptops and videoconferencing.

Consider your future

Try to design your space so that it’s easy to expand or contract if necessary, such as including separate pods that can be sublet in the event of downsizing.

By using moveable and modular walls, partitions and furniture, you can reconfigure rooms in a way that permit multiple uses.

When reporting on key trends identified in their experience designing space for law firms, Brian Parker, AIA, senior associate, and Richard Stonis, director of interior architecture, Cooper Carry, Atlanta, told of one firm where they created an internal module that could be used in its single space as a huddle room, as a “war room” in its double space, or as an open office for support staff in its triple space.


Even if you don’t foresee an office redesign in your near future, start taking notes now.

A project of this size takes a lot of planning and changing your mind during the process will not only disrupt the project, but will likely cost the firm a lot more in the end.

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