Employee productivity taking precedence over luxury in law firms

Law firm: The phrase conjures up a work setting that is formal, traditional and rigidly structured to reward top partners. But volatile economic conditions, keen competition and advances in technology have changed the way firms practice law and that has, in turn, driven a change in the design of law firm office space.

Law firms are finding that one general practitioner can no longer serve clients single-handedly. Instead, firms rely on teams of specialists. To accommodate this shift, firms are looking at the character of their facilities’ interiors and planning layouts to connect, rather than separate, people.

This means law firms are now following a strategy that many corporations have adopted, moving away from the traditional — where square footage was allocated by seniority, and corner windows were reserved for top dogs — and toward open, flexible space to encourage teamwork and interaction.

Shrinking Corner Office

With rent second only to salaries among a law practice’s expenses, more efficient space planning can save a firm millions of dollars. With that in mind, partners are asking themselves: Are these offices set up to help the firm work efficiently? Can office design save money while still creating a great place to work?

As a result, even firms that are traditional in practice are taking a less traditional approach to office space. They are moving away from individual workspaces and using universal workstations, providing nearly all employees with identically sized, shaped and furnished spaces, making the office more flexible and readily available to meet client needs. Three large law firms located in Portland, Ore. — Lane Powell Spears Lubersky LLP, Miller Nash LLP, and Schwabe, Williamson & Wyatt — illustrate the trend.

Miller Nash had been in its offices since 1983, and the space was outdated, not only cosmetically, but also in terms of efficiency and in accommodations for new technology.

The biggest change was to eliminate the maze-like environment that isolated employees from one another. Instead, teams of lawyers, paralegals and legal assistants are clustered into “neighborhoods.” Offices were opened up for more community space to encourage more lawyer-to-lawyer mentoring and water-cooler conversations.

Miller Nash’s library space was reduced by more than 60 percent. The firm put the libraries on high-density storage systems, making room for information systems staff — staff that didn’t exist in 1983.

The team concept was carried over into new lunchrooms at Miller Nash and at Schwabe, Williamson & Wyatt. Previously dark, internal lunchrooms were moved to corner perimeter space, giving employees access to daylight and vista views.

In 1999, Lane Powell recognized that its multiple-floor layout was not helping employees work efficiently. Lane Powell needed an office space that would encourage employees to work closely in teams. The result was a space that, at the time, was unprecedented in Northwest law firms: a one-size-fits-all, 10-by-15-foot office for all attorneys, regardless of rank. That strategy reduced overall square footage by 24 percent.

Flexible furniture was chosen to maximize storage space in these smaller offices; desks double as conference tables, allowing attorneys to hold one-on-one meetings in their offices. The offices provide flexibility for the staff and allow them to rearrange work teams as projects necessitate. Rather than being in a pool, secretaries have their own cubicles, which accommodate the technology they need to do their jobs. This also gives the office flexibility, allowing secretarial spaces to be converted into paralegal stations as client needs change.

The response from attorneys, staff and clients at Lane Powell was excellent. The space put lawyers, legal assistants and secretaries in closer proximity, enhancing teamwork and improving responsiveness to clients.

Security Matters

Security increasingly plays a role in office remodeling. In the past, both Miller Nash and Schwabe, Williamson & Wyatt had four floors where the public could enter the firm. They’ve both changed their design so that they have a single-floor reception area, with the others accessible only to staff.

The single-floor reception concept places all conference rooms on the public floor. This arrangement is more secure and better for client service and employee communications.

In another sign of a shift from the traditional, Schwabe, Williamson & Wyatt now has its conference rooms away from the perimeter, leaving an area of bench seating showcasing the panoramic views of the city. A total of 16 conference rooms were moved and centralized onto the main floor.

One large training room with sliding glass doors opens up to allow seating for up to 150 people theater-style. This allows the firm to hold firm-wide meetings. Those doors also can be closed, enabling a smaller group to meet but still have access to all the audio-visual equipment.

Into the Unknown

Offices will continue to evolve with the advance of accessible, affordable technology. So it’s important to continue to ask: Why focus on an office or cubicle when employees are equally as effective — and perhaps more effective — someplace else?

The challenge will be to create flexible, supportive spaces. The measure of success lies not in whether a space is well-designed for today, but in whether it can adapt to an unforeseen tomorrow and meet the challenge of making people more productive.

Karen Niemi is the interior design principal at the Portland, Ore., architecture firm Yost Grube Hall.

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  posted on 9/1/2004   Article Use Policy

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