Out and about

Firms increasingly looking to provide more fun environments for attorneys

Firms increasingly looking to provide more fun environments for attorneys
November 2019
By John McNally
Managing editor

Law firms are slowly starting to break out of their shells.

Bill Rogers, international director of central region tenant representation with real estate firm JLL, notes law firms are traditionally conservative and slow adapters by nature when it comes to designing their offices. But, with the increased need to differentiate themselves in recruitment of veteran and incoming associates just out of law school, firms are taking more chances.

“They’re definitely trying new things, particularly in relocation or renovation (opportunities),” Rogers said. “Firms are still trying to reduce square footage by going to universal offices. They’re taking away personal space and (reallocating) it to cafes and casual meeting places in the office.”

“Law firms are getting more aggressive with their space strategies.”

Todd Lippman, a vice chairman of brokerage services with CBRE, believes firms contracting space are designing more efficiently.

“Even when firms are renovating, they’re trying to save money and add that back into amenities,” he said.

Respondents to Chicago Lawyer’s 2019 Firm Office Spaces survey confirm that amenities such as on-site gyms with personal trainers, cafes, fully stocked snack and beverage stations, mediation and wellness rooms, bike storage areas, concierge service, shoe-shine and dry-cleaning services are just a smattering of options they can provide to attorneys throughout the city.

Most law firms, according to Lippman, haven’t gone the way of the millennial tech companies by installing beer or cold-brew coffee taps, but they are making a point to let their hair down and enjoy themselves.

“I have seen firms be more invested in having more soft seating, television areas and room to bring in food,” Lippman said. “The goal is to create fun environments.”

In its blog post “Five Must-Dos When Designing a Law Firm Workplace,” Chicago-based design-build-construction firm Skender highlights “recruitment and retention of the next attorney generation,” “the workplace experience for the individual,” the “health and well-being in a demanding workplace,” “the power of ubiquitous tech” and “future-proof updates” as the key points firms must make decisions about when reconfiguring its offices.

“Given the tremendous pressure placed on attorneys to maximize billable hours, the more opportunities they are given to leave their desks, work solitarily in a different room surrounded by something different on the wall or a different color, with different acoustics, or even meet in a small room or hang out in the cafĂ©, the better,” Skender Vice President and partner Clay Edwards and Nelson principal and legal workplace practice Co-chair Marty Festenstein wrote in the blog.

Rogers believes firms that are in the process for potential changes are thinking in extremes.

“The evaluation going on with firms is deciding between a short-term renewal or a major renovation,” he said. “The third choice is a relocation.”

Only seven firms who responded to this survey moved during 2018, while 15 renovated their headquarters. Two firms are considering uprooting their digs and finding a new pasture in the future, eight are thinking about a renovation and eight are keeping an open mind about renovating or moving locations.

Lippman also highlights how audio/visual and IT services are increasingly important to law firms and a key factor in how to design their offices.

“Technology changes so dramatically and so quickly,” he said. “Tech budgets continue to go up. The key is ease-of-use and access.”

Here are some interesting data points when you compare the 2019 and 2018 surveys:

  • Firms reporting uniform office spaces dropped in 2019 vs. 2018. This year, 16.9% of firm have uniform offices compared to 23.9% in 2018. Additionally, the number of firms considering going to uniform offices dipped to 18.7% from 19.5%.
  • Also, firms that don’t have or would not considering shifting to uniform office spaces rose in 2019 to 64.4% from 56.5% in 2018.

In conjunction with uniform offices, this year’s survey results showed the partner offices saw a slight increase in square footage from 207 square feet in 2018 to 209.5 this year. Associate office size space dropped ever-so-slightly from 150 square feet last year to 149.4 square feet in 2019.

Lippman’s experience this year sees law firms angling for standard office space in renovations, but he warns firms may be spending good money for little benefits.

“For folks who are staying in place, we seeing people go to universal size,” he said. “By the time you spend the money to disrupt the office, you’re never going to see the payback on your capital. Or save 5% of space … the math doesn’t add up.”