A hierarchical culture steeped in tradition and mystique, hefty hourly fees and operating standards that generated huge file rooms of paper are on the way out.
At the same time, a confluence of disruptors, ranging from artificial intelligence to outsourcing, vastly lowers the cost of delivering legal services, changing the paradigm of law firm operations.
Firm leadership, now often in the hands of business executives instead of managing partners, is under pressure to deliver profits in a highly competitive, greatly accelerated business environment that commands deep industry expertise. Mergers and acquisitions can help firms not only expand geographic and/or practice reach, but also secure an industry niche distinct enough to sustain a practice.
In the meantime, law firms’ top two expenses – people and real estate–keep rising. To gain efficiency, firms seek alternative ways to deliver services and cut fixed costs. Lowering the cost of occupancy presents an opportunity to not only improve the bottom line, but also to create a modern work environment for the future workforce.
To create that optimal workplace, three things must be in balance: people, process and place. Knoll conducted research and spoke to more than a dozen leaders who plan and design law firm offices to learn about challenges and planning strategies for balancing these three elements in the future workplace.
Despite technological advances that have eliminated labor-intensive tasks and digitized entire file rooms, the practice of law remains tradition-bound.
However, firms are gradually adopting more progressive, efficient designs that offset the cost of renovation and higher real estate costs, and better serve a cohort with different values and work preferences than its predecessors. Also, of note:
- Competition for talent is high. Law firms compete not only with each other, but also with the technology and financial services sectors for a smaller pool of talent (law school enrollment is down nearly 25 percent since 2010).
- The practice of law is mentoring-intensive and office environments must support the face-to-face interaction required to groom the next generation of talent.
- Legal work is increasingly collaborative and team-based(though automation has reduced the size and make-up of teams) and requires an environment with choices, including options for privacy, which is integral in the legal sector.
- Power has shifted from lawyers to their clients, putting downward pressure on fees and forcing firms to seek greater efficiencies in their practice and real estate.
- Many law firms plan to maintain private offices and prestige locations. However, offices are becoming smaller in size and modular in format, with space savings allocated to a greater number and variety of shared amenity spaces.
- Re-imagined public areas serve multiple functions and audiences throughout the day and evening as firms focus on the experience factor for both clients and employees. Décor leans toward subtly elegant expressions of the firm’s brand and values.