Office Design that Delivers: Design By Law

Office Design that Delivers: Design By Law

By Beth Herman, contributor to The Washington Post

In the legal profession, the saying goes that the law is whatever the judge says it is. But when it comes to law firm design, there are many masters.

“All kinds of forces converging now on law firms provide a context for them to think differently about how they operate,” says OPX Managing Partner Steve Polo, whose firm has designed upwards of 60 law offices nationally, many in D.C. “Current economic environment withstanding, over the last few years there have probably been more law firm failures than in the previous 25 years.”

According to Polo, law firms are in the midst of a “new client mindset” that involves aligning operations and procedures more with other professional services firms. In short, he says, there’s a business model transformation occurring. Demographic and technology challenges also impact law firms more than ever, and everything informs design.

“Anytime a law firm considers what the future is going to look like, you have to consider who is going to be in the future so ‘GenX’ and ‘GenY’ people (or ‘millennials’) are going to occupy the future: not Baby Boomers,” says Polo. “And there are even more GenY’ers. All three have different work styles with different expectations about how they ought to work.”

Diminishing real estate-per-attorney ratios (or office size), attorney recruitment and retention, lawyer/secretary ratio, collocation of spaces for maximum efficiency, repurposing and sustainability are among the litany of factors transforming the 21st century law firm environment.

At the 19th and M Streets office of Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice, LLP, one of four regional universal size law offices designed by OPX, a more egalitarian approach where partner and associate offices are the same 165-square foot size was an ambitious agenda for a roughly 50-attorney firm. Opponents of this process say it may present office culture conflict and a challenge to the more traditional “partner in the corner office” entitlement perk, not to mention a radical departure from even the current smaller 600-square foot law office metric.

“The egalitarian component surely has to be a cultural attribute of the organization,” affirms OPX’s Polo. “The first discussion we have with any of these firms is to understand who they are – how they’re built organizationally and operationally – and how they see themselves in the future.”

Viewed as setting the design benchmark for the firm’s other 13 offices, D.C. managing partner Pam Rothenberg acknowledges it is difficult to make change anywhere, particularly in a law firm. “Each (Womble Carlyle location) has its own culture and dynamic,” she says, noting that even at 15 years old, the D.C. office is among the newest ventures.

Downsizing from a 55,000-square foot footprint to 31,000 square feet in 2011, the firm decided to create what Rothenberg and Polo call “the law office of the future,” pursuing ideas and opportunities that would lead to long term efficiency as the legal field undergoes transformation.

“Positioning our office for success, reducing our overhead for profitability and effectively aligning our real estate with the real estate our clients were living in – palatial offices were distasteful to them – were among our goals,” Rothenberg says, adding that in an egalitarian vein the transition was inclusive with the firm “canvassing and surveying” each and every staff member in the design process. Noting there was some concern expressed by older partners and other firm leadership about recruiting senior partners and high level lateral partners within such nontraditional real estate parameters, Rothenberg said the reality is at some point everyone will need to catch up. “The expenses of carrying the real estate is (a condition of) non-profitability.”

Among the byproducts of the firm’s design are more collaborative spaces which can be repurposed and reused in multiple ways, including the firm’s breakout areas and coffee bar in which people congregate to work. Individual offices are entered through sliding glass doors, for an economy of space, which are filmed for privacy.

“The only way to deal with change is to embrace it and to live it,” says Womble Carlyle’s Pam Rothenberg. “We need to be a part of the future, not the past.”

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