Tear Down the Walls: Restructuring Your Law Firm Environment

It’s your typical Monday morning in a not-so-traditional office. A young lawyer sits next to an engineer who is designing a new robotic device. Before heading to her desk, she had grabbed a cup of coffee, and while adding her sweetener, she ran into a tax advisor and asked if he could explain a tax loophole that related to a client’s new start-up. She acquired the new client last week at an office luncheon, in which he presented his business proposal to the room.

Meanwhile, the robotic engineer is trying to put together a package to submit for patent protection, but he needs graphic support. So he heads over to play a game of ping pong with a millennial marketing team that shares a small glass office on the other side of the coffee/happy hour bar. The young attorney is asked to join them in helping prepare the submission for the PTO.

For the attorney, it’s a pretty damn good day. Unfortunately this attorney and many more like her are not working at your law firm. As a matter of fact they don’t work at a law firm at all. They work at WeWork, one of a number of shared-office space concepts that are sprouting up across the country. These type of spaces cater to entrepreneurs, freelancers, start-ups and small businesses.

The WeWork concept fits perfectly with the attitude and thinking of our leaders of tomorrow. Such shared-office environments create networking opportunities, provide flexibility and facilitate collaboration. They are exactly what the Millennials are looking for in the modern workplace.

Problems with the Law Firm Environment

So why does the young attorney in my example not work at your firm? It’s pretty obvious.

Who wants to work in an environment where your ideas don’t matter, your voice isn’t heard, and you’re told to do things without explanation and are not given the chance to improve upon the process and the final result? It’s a shame the law firm culture and structure creates such a hierarchical environment that doesn’t foster growth and collaboration – in most cases. It’s not about who gets the biggest office, the corner office, origination fees or partner equity. It’s about sharing space, sharing ideas, and learning and connecting while having fun and enjoying a balanced work-life ratio.

Adapting to the Modern Office Culture

How can law firms learn from and adapt to the WeWork culture?

First, let me say that, though I am speaking to law firm leaders universally, there are firms out there that are working hard to reinvent how they can better serve their clients and attract and retain talent by adopting contemporary business practices.

These firms, and proudly some of them are our clients, are redesigning their office space to equalize and remove hierarchy. They are creating more group areas for collaboration and recharging, and these areas have the best views so everyone can enjoy them. Some firms are building mentoring programs and generational teams, and some have developed marketing and business development incentive programs. This is a start, and I applaud them.

But in general we need to rethink the law firm so that it survives. There are already disruptors out there changing the legal landscape like Axiom, Avvo and the aforementioned collaborative workplaces. Young attorneys are not getting what they need from their firms, so they leave and go create their own.

Instead of losing talent, what if the firm sent small groups to work in an environment like WeWorks? They could share, learn, collaborate, network and bill hours. They would have the work-life balance they demand, and the firm could grow without acquiring additional costs related to space and office availability.

3 Steps to Modernizing Your Law Firm

While there are countless initiatives you could implement to reinvent your law firm, here are some core tactics to get you started:

  • Redesign the workspace so that it inspires an integrated approach to legal services, one that fosters collaboration, mentoring and brainstorming. Create a team environment providing a 360-degree view of the client and their goals allowing multi-generational and niche expertise to add perspective.

  • Integrate marketing, media relations, technology and the practice of law into one big think tank of solutions. Tear down the walls between staff and attorneys and bring real-life experience to the table.

  • Create an environment that lets people be themselves, one that creates social engagement outside of the client need, one where work and life intersect creating community and inspiring greatness.

By the way, our young lawyer used to work at a midsize firm in New York City. The attorneys at the firm make great money, but they work long hours and most of the client work is led by partners that should have retired years ago. Though she is passionate about practicing law and helping others, she found that working under these old-school conditions stifled her creativity and ability to learn and grow. She now “works to make a life, not a living,” the mission statement of WeWork and an aspiration for all of our futures.

© Copyright 2008-2017, Jaffe Associates

Generational Design Shapes Future Law Firm Office Space

Commentary by David Chason, Daily Business Review

It’s no secret that multigenerational issues are permeating the legal landscape at warp speed, calling attention to critical factors that impact the future of law firm cultures and brands. Yet, recruitment, retention and succession planning, as some fundamental examples, are not just exclusive to the business of law. They are permeating into law firm office design, transforming how interior spaces are harmonizing with age diversity and the evolution of each generation’s needs and desires in the modern workplace.

Planning for change, often a dreaded word, is a core characteristic of law firm design today. This means that office space must remain agile. A constant rebalance of “law and order” as it pertains to interior spaces must be available to appeal to the current workforce, from baby boomers to millennials, while preparing for tomorrow.

There is no doubt that real estate is a significant investment for law firms. This requires careful design considerations and strategy to ensure spaces are best utilized for client interface, collaboration and the accommodation of growth. But more importantly, keeping law firm employees satisfied in their daily environment, especially for those spending countless waking hours in the office, needs to be a relevant goal in interior design presentation.

Whether on the brink of retirement or passing the bar exam, attorneys in any stage of their careers have, likely, a clear-defined definition of the optimal workspace. To allow for law firms and its professionals to thrive, partners should be open minded to re-imagining the type of interior layouts required for this multi-generational audience.

The first steps proven to be effective to maintain relevancy in designing for all ages is to appoint a “redesign committee” of firm attorneys committed to serving as a representative of their respective age groups. These committees ignite much-needed conversations about office space improvements. They also reveal interesting changes that are impacting the legal profession, such as the willingness to establish open spaces and collaborative areas for employees to gather informally.

Each age group of attorneys has demonstrated a trend toward patterns that appeal to their generation.

Baby Boomers

The breakdown of specific design requests shows that baby boomers still function in a hierarchal structure in law firm office space. That means ranking of seniority often exists, affording seasoned firm members the traditional “corner office” with views and drywall. Their careers were established before the open workspace floor plans, thus, they still seek calm and private spaces to work, such as closed offices and small rooms that function separately from other team members. Libraries that house printed books and magazines for industry resources are utilized, although a clear majority of attorneys are integrating forms of technology into daily activity to foster better communication. Custom millwork, paneling, leather and integration of traditional furnishings are prevalent, even if mixed with contemporary designs found through an entire law office.

Generation X

Law firms that are embracing modern design and style support a more communal and inclusive work environment. Design features such as glass-fronted offices and conference rooms inspire natural light to enter once darker workspaces. For Gen X, the addition of these elements can also help illicit mentoring of associates and incite communication of firm goals. Private offices are now more welcoming with the use of flexible furniture and seating areas that often look similar to a home living room. Hospitality is a key cornerstone to making a multigenerational team feel at ease in this type of environment. Offices then have multiple uses, to hold meetings or invite clients in a more personalized setting. With this generation being more open to change, the frequented engagement in conference calls also provokes a desire for phone booths and moveable walls. Their mentality focuses both on pleasing the former age group and those younger.

Gen Y/Millennials

Gen Y or millennials choose collaborative spaces, where they can experience a sense of freedom while being a part of the firm. In fact, they are the least bit concerned about the traditional role of the office. Technology takes a dominant role within their space; it is important in every sense, from touchpad capabilities and ease of access to materials. Bolder and brighter colors, carpeting, wall coverings and textures are preferred, with a splash of nature incorporated. Coffee, food pantries available at their discretion and break areas provide more laid-back meeting locations and spaces where work can be done via laptop or tablet. They think “out of the box” and custom environments make law firm offices stand apart in their design.

The Future

Many attorneys seek to remain nimble to technology and the changing scope of office space design. It is important to share a common perspective that collective efforts are needed from all age groups to impact the bottom-line.

Each law firm has a distinctive identify and its own set of needs. When implementing design changes, the process should start with an understanding of how a firm operates for the space design to completely aligned with its identity. When a design plan works for a law office, it generates a true organizational advantage. It is a powerful tool to reinforce the brand and culture.

Even with forward movement taking place, law office space allocation indicates that 60 percent of interior design is still comprised of traditional meeting rooms and offices. Given the confidential nature of legal work, there will always be limitations to how far firms can go to alter the composition of space. And, the “private” office is more likely to remain a necessity for some lawyers.

Yet, integration of technology will be complemented by significantly smaller dimensions in real estate, operations that foster collaboration, and flexible layouts. Creating more relaxed areas that encourage impromptu meetings, and space for smaller work groups and virtual gatherings is essential. Strategy and design behind collaborative areas is critical for any successful law firm.

To seamlessly move into the law office of tomorrow, the key is to create a flexible environment that is forward thinking, so the legal workplace can adapt and support the needs for the firm of the future.

BigLaw embraces the remote work trend

By Allison Deerr, posted 8/1/2017 in ABA Journal

With an emerging workforce focused on career paths offering better work-life balance, BigLaw firms are changing the ways they attract new talent and meet the demands of the modern professional. One of the newest perks: the virtual office. But in an industry reliant on face-to-face communication and notorious for a culture of working long hours, the change in remote work policies for lawyers has been a gradual one, marked by firms wetting their feet with regional beta tests before rolling out companywide initiatives.
After its own successful beta test, Morgan, Lewis & Bockius announced plans this year to allow its associates in the U.S. and the U.K. to work remotely up to two days a week. Jackson Lewis and Baker McKenzie have also launched new flexible work programs. In a press release, Jackson Lewis describes its remote work program as a “win-win” that will help the firm continue to attract and retain top talent “without sacrificing productivity, responsiveness or engagement.”
Top on the list of concerns for firms considering remote work programs are cybersecurity and productivity. Steve Falkin, managing director of IT strategy at HBR Consulting in Chicago, helps firms create flexible work cultures through mobility solutions and secure remote access. According to Falkin, technology can solve many of the barriers that might have prevented firms from embracing remote work in the past.
“Today’s lawyers have varying work styles, and technology should support that to the greatest extent possible,” Falkin says. “Allowing lawyers to have flexibility in the type of devices used to access firm systems—and ensuring they can work at times and in the manner that best fits their lifestyle—is key.”
Baker McKenzie already had technology in place to allow for flexible work arrangements before launching its new program, bAgile. Peter May, chief talent officer, says the firm hopes a more formalized program will ensure its flexible work options are available to everyone—not just the people who were already utilizing them. “We … wanted to create a more formal and comprehensive framework that went beyond remote working. This is about educating our people about what’s possible,” May says.
Some firms have expanded their remote programs to include staff. Sarah Leonard is a legal assistant participating in an “agile work program” offered by a large global law firm in Washington, D.C. She says she started utilizing her firm’s flexible work program in December because the commute from her home in Southern Maryland was “extremely taxing.” Leonard now works one day a week from home using a laptop provided by the firm and a virtual private network.
When she started at the firm, Leonard says, the agile program was just being implemented for nonattorney staffers. “Presently, a large majority of attorney assistants take advantage of the program in some fashion, either by working from home, working custom hours or working longer hours and having a day off. This schedule has positively benefited me both financially and emotionally,” she adds. “One day a week I’m able to wake up, walk across the hall to my office and take my dog to work.”
In the most recent survey by the Diversity & Flexibility Alliance, a D.C. think tank, 26 of the 28 participating law firms had formal flexibility policies. But despite this fact, the survey found many attorneys may perceive flexible work options to be detrimental to their long-term career advancement, with only 1 percent of equity partners and 5 percent of associates utilizing such programs.
Despite the number of firm lawyers actually taking advantage of flexible work programs, such policies may still help firms attract new talent. A PwC study in partnership with the University of Southern California and the London Business School showed work-life balance to be a top priority of millennials. PwC’s NextGen reported 64 percent saying they would like to occasionally work from home, and 15 percent of men and 21 percent of women saying they would give up some of their pay and slow the pace of promotion in exchange for working fewer hours.


This article was first published in the August 2017 ABA Journal magazine with the headline “Dialing It In: BigLaw embraces the remote work trend.”