Not all industries have realized the benefits of the modern, agile office—especially when privacy is an essential aspect of the job. Can you imagine an attorney working on a merger of two public companies talking on the phone in an open space?

That’s why traditional law firms have been slower to adopt innovative design strategies than perhaps, say, firms that specialize in tech and IP. But that’s changing slowly and surely. Simply put, more law firms are not only embracing agility, but they’re also bending and tweaking the concept to create spaces that attract a younger workforce—and still make sense for the business.

Typically, that means incorporating more-advanced technology and cost-effective designs that are collaborative and functional yet still provide the level of privacy that legal professionals require. In other words, the offices of senior partners are now single-size rather than palatial, and the extra space is dedicated to more-communal environments.

“I think it’s primarily driven not only by the cost of real estate, especially in the more expensive cities, but just having the right mix of offices,” says David Sheehan, Senior Project Design Lead at CBRE. “There’s more inclusion of the entire staff, and it’s not just all about the attorneys. Having more social hubs is becoming more important as well.”

Cost is one factor for the shift in law office spaces, but it’s also about culture.

“About a half-dozen firms have moved to more-modern spaces over at Hudson Yards,” a new development on Manhattan’s West Side, says Matt Moody, a legal recruiter at New York-based firm Empire Search Partners. “The partners at some of those firms now have small offices; associates share; and new attorneys are in open, agile spaces for the first year or two.” The format has gone over best with firms specializing in tech, since the environment is similar to that of their clients. He adds, “In all, the New York City firms doing this are able to reduce their space demands and costs by up to 30% without cutting staff.”

Three key considerations

Firms ready to upend tradition should take the “shift-the-needle” strategy, which, at its core, is all about inclusivity. These spaces convey and foster a more communal, collaborative environment and are defined by activated reception areas where people can gather, smaller individual workstations, and universal-sized rooms for both partners and associates. In other words, the “shift-the-needle” design has more collaborative spaces, while “stay the course” retains more traditional law office elements.

law firm figure

Though neither approach is right or wrong, here are three key considerations of both that should be incorporated into a legal-workspace redesign:

Increase flexibility

To attract high-caliber first-year associates, the ability to move around and work beyond one’s assigned desk is essential. “Occupiers’ ability to embrace flexibility, especially with the younger generation of talent, is critical,” says Damla Gerhart, Senior Managing Director at CBRE. “The next generation of attorneys is those millennials who are used to working from a variety of different spaces. Their ability to continue to do that in their law firm is important.”

Improve technology

Communications technology should be a universal priority for occupiers, given that law students use shared drives, PowerPoint, and video chats every day. “There’s a desire on behalf of law firms to create a great, productive meeting experience for when their clients come to their offices,” says Gerhart. “Ensuring that technology works seamlessly so that they can share documents or actively include remote participants is a necessity.”

Uphold privacy

Although improving workflow via technology is important, maintaining privacy is crucial when it comes to legal workplaces. It’s imperative that confidentiality is supported and protected. “It’s about finding the right balance between providing privacy and enabling transparency to garner collaboration amonst colleauges. ” Gerhart says of modern, agile law offices.

As the modern office evolves, law firm environments will have to grow and change as well. Occupiers in this sector must stay nimble and embrace more-collaborative, innovative work environments—just like every other profession.

Learn more about legal sector real estate trends in CBRE’s “A Shifting Landscape: 2019 North American Legal Sector Trends” report.

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