Today's snazzy law offices: Wow-factor or wasteful?

6 minute read

FILE PHOTO - An empty conference room is seen as the first phase of FMC Corporation employees return to work in the office in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S., June 14, 2021. REUTERS/Hannah Beier

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(Reuters) - When 345-lawyer Buchalter surveyed its partners last year about returning to the office post-pandemic, the consensus was overwhelming. About 90% said they wanted to go back to working in-person, firm CEO Adam Bass told me.

But with conditions: not five days a week -- more like three, he said.

The survey mirrors what I’ve been hearing anecdotally from other lawyers for more than a year. They miss interacting with their colleagues and value the energy that comes from face-to-face collaboration.

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But there’s also a lot to recommend about working from home, like the 10-second commute, soft elastic-waist pants and the dog dozing by your feet. Plus, if 2020's record profits are any indication, remote work has not impaired productivity. If anything, the opposite.

For many lawyers, a hybrid work schedule offers the best of both worlds. And as law firms battle for talent, it behooves them to keep their people happy by accommodating them, even after the pandemic ends. (Surely it will end?)

Except for one thing: Class A office space makes for an expensive pied-à-terre.

In New York, firms these days can expect to pay $90 to $110 a square foot for high-end digs, according to CBRE's Lou Christopher, who serves on the executive committee of the commercial real estate company’s national law firm group.

In Washington, D.C., the typical range is $75 to $95. In downtown Los Angeles, rents run around $45 per square foot, and in West LA, it’s more like $80 to $90, Christopher told me, though he added that many landlords are offering “record concessions,” including up to two years of free rent and money for tenant improvements.

Still, it’s a lot to spend on office space that might only be used by lawyers 60% of the time.

Even pre-pandemic, law firms had begun to scale back the size of their offices based on square feet per attorney, Christopher said, reducing their footprints an average of 10% to 30% when leasing new space.

If half-empty offices are to be the norm, the incentive to shrink has only been heightened.

But it can be a difficult needle to thread. If an office is cramped and dingy, good luck luring people away from the comforts of home. If it's fabulous but underutilized, it feels like a waste of money.

I checked in with several firms that are in the process of moving to new offices to see how they’re striking a balance with their real estate dollars.

One common tactic is to give lawyers – whether a first-year associate or senior partner -- individual offices that are all the same, relatively compact size. (Sounds enticing for associate, yet is it for the partner?)

But that’s what 150-lawyer Wiggin and Dana did when it leased new space in Stamford, Connecticut. The firm is shrinking from 23,000 square feet to 15,000 for about 30 lawyers, said Robert Hoff, a Stamford-based partner who is helping lead the upcoming move.

“We’re doing more with less,” Hoff told me, such as adding a coffee bar and cozy “touchdown rooms” at the ends of hallways with small couches that offer a quiet place to relax.

With ample glass, light wood and accents of a navy shade that Hoff calls “Wiggin Blue,” the 14th floor office overlooks Long Island Sound. The goal, he said, is to make it a place where lawyers and staff will want to spend time.

That was Perkins Coie’s aim as well when the firm in November moved to a new 100,000-square foot office in Chicago, reducing its space by 20,000 square feet.

Being in the office is intended to be “an enhanced experience over working at home,” said Paul Abrahamson, the 1,300-lawyer firm’s director of real estate, with state-of-the-art technology and plenty of space to collaborate and socialize.

The new office – three floors in a skyscraper on North Wacker Drive – houses 122 lawyers and includes a conference and event center, as well as a cafe and community lounge with sweeping views of the Chicago River and city skyline.

“We really opened it up,” Abrahamson said. “It’s much more efficient, a smarter design in terms of layout.”

More than 130 staff members are based in Chicago, many of whom provide firm-wide business services, marketing and technology support. Rather than assign them individual workstations, the staffers on hybrid schedules “hotel," working from any space within the office that’s vacant that day.

When the firm moves to a consolidated office in Palo Alto in March, chief of business operations Tammy Baldwin told me that lawyers who come in infrequently will also not have their own dedicated (mostly unused) offices, but will be able to reserve offices and collaboration spaces for use during their visits. Others on a set hybrid schedule may share an office, with one lawyer occupying it, for example, on Mondays and Wednesdays and the other on Tuesdays and Thursdays. However, lawyers who work in-person four or five days a week will get their own offices.

Buchalter CEO Bass told me his firm surveyed its partners about adopting a hotel model, but the majority did not support giving up dedicated personal offices.

It comes down to priorities. “We all pay the rent,” Bass said of the partnership. “If you want an office, you pay for it. It’s a cost we all share.”

Not to mention lawyers may be more likely to show up in person if they know their own familiar office is waiting.

Sheppard Mullin Richter & Hampton is moving its 50-lawyer Silicon Valley office into a brand-new building in Menlo Park, California, in February, where it will occupy 32,000 square feet as the primary tenant.

The new space is actually bigger than the firm’s current office in Palo Alto to allow for growth. “It’s built for more people but with fewer square feet per attorney,” said the firm’s Chief Operating Officer, Ted Tinson.

It’s also designed with future hoteling in mind, he said, with storage places for personal effects and rolling file drawers.

COVID-19 safety is also a priority. Rather than seating secretaries and support staff in open cubicles, Tinson said they’ll be in enclosed modular units with four glass walls and sliding doors that vent directly into the building’s HVAC system.

“It’s a little more expensive, but we thought we’d give it a try,” he said, adding, "We're trying to divine what will be the best principles of new design, given the changes in work patterns and the high cost of real estate. It's a fascinating design puzzle. We'll see how much turns out to be right."

Opinions expressed here are those of the author. Reuters News, under the Trust Principles, is committed to integrity, independence and freedom from bias.

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Jenna Greene writes about legal business and culture, taking a broad look at trends in the profession, faces behind the cases, and quirky courtroom dramas. A longtime chronicler of the legal industry and high-profile litigation, she lives in Northern California. Reach Greene at jenna.greene@thomsonreuters.com