COMMENTARY: Practice makes perfect - Law firm design trends promise a more compact, efficient operational model

By Tom Lasky

When one of the largest international law firms in the world, based in NYC, filed for bankruptcy a few years ago in part due to huge occupancy costs, it was a wake-up call for many other contemporary law firms. To some, it served as a reminder that design matters to the bottom line—and that failing to consider the way a law firm is designed can compromise the economy, efficiency and efficacy of a practice. While the international law firm implosion in many ways highlighted what not to do, it was also a reminder that less is more, and that quality design can promote a more connected, collaborative and cost-effective workplace.

In Southeast Michigan, many of those same issues are now on the table for Michigan-based law firms considering renewal or relocation.  In one recent move of a large 100 year old firm, its members understood that the practice of law had changed functionally, aesthetically and economically, and that in order to maintain a sustainable and profitable 21st Century practice, the firm would have to be responsive to those changes.

The firm was looking to redesign its space to address emerging trends and best practices for law firm design and operation—and to reduce its overall occupancy costs in the process. This effectively eliminated the possibility of a renewal, as in that case a blank-slate that new space provides was essential. To its credit, the firm was open to all design and functionality changes. Many of those changes were designed to reduce the overall footprint and dovetail with a move toward a smaller, more efficient operational model. During the past decade there has been a steady reduction in the area per attorney, from an original norm of 1,100 square feet per attorney to a new benchmark of 600 to 700 square feet.

While Detroit law firms still have comparatively high square-foot ratios and occupancy numbers—and many of the characteristics of cutting-edge planning and design that capture the cost, culture and performance benefits of leading firms in global cities have not yet made their way to the Motor City—the firm was determined to evaluate its commercial real estate needs in the context of some of the best new law firm real estate trends and practices.

Law firms looking to optimize their space in the process of a similar upgrade or relocation should consider the following law firm design changes and strategies that are fast becoming pervasive in the industry:

Design for Social Interaction
Instead of several coffee/meeting areas on a floor, consider designing one larger communal space, an area that is better appointed and more appealing to employees. Such a space can be a social and professional nexus, providing opportunities for associates and partners to mix and engage—interactions that can be essential to career development. These areas build relationships, enhance firm culture, and foster knowledge sharing and mentorship—resulting in more capable, productive and engaged attorneys.

Adopt a smaller uniform office size
Growing numbers of partners and higher level associates are eschewing traditionally larger office space in favor of a more democratic, smaller standardized office design. This approach can improve function and efficiency, as well as reduce costs and minimize conflicts and potentially disruptive office politics.

Reduce the law library footprint Technology has essentially made large and expensive law libraries obsolete, consolidating all the information an attorney needs on his/her computer. With no reason other than aesthetic considerations to dedicate space to hard copy reporters, it makes sense to reduce the size of your law library significantly.

Go with a smaller lobby size
Considerable space and money can be saved by adopting a smaller entrance lobby and incorporating proximate meeting socialization spaces.

Prioritize modularity/flexibility in conference/meeting rooms
Because many law firms still seem to use conference rooms as “war rooms” and impromptu planning spaces—which reduces flexibility and drives up space demands—it makes sense to design with flexible usage in mind. Reconfigurable modular approaches are a great way to provide more efficient space and to ultimately do more with less.
Increase attorney-to-admin ratios

There has been a steady and effective increase in the ratio of attorneys to administrative assistance from 3:1 up to closer to 5:1. Not only does this save costs without appreciably impacting operational capabilities, it also reduces overall square footage requirements.

Minimize document centers and storage

Growing acceptance of digital document imaging by the courts means that large document centers can be significantly reduced or located in less expensive space in the building. In some cases, it may be more efficient to utilize secure off-site storage.

Pool support staff
For many firms, it makes sense to cluster support staff into mini “service centers” to realize improved efficiency and better space utilization, as well as fostering greater flexibility on assignments and workflow.

While these are among the most common strategies that forward-thinking law firms are adopting, new trends are always emerging. For example, the development of practice area organization and the growing complexity of business suggest that teamwork among attorneys is becoming the new normal—individually focused work may soon occupy only a third of the typical attorney’s workday. Younger generation’s work-styles will affect law firms in much the same way as they have corporations. The globalization of the profession may soon popularize more traditionally European spatial concepts, including shared offices, high partition workstations (rather than hard walled offices), and other surprising changes.

While Detroit rents are only a fraction of the rates in New York, London, San Francisco and other major markets, the high cost of real estate remains a key driver for law firm design change in many national and international markets. Along with lease cost factors, smaller spatial footprints often yield better performance, greater flexibility, higher levels of attorney interaction and collaboration, and other practical practice benefits. For many Michigan firms, those benefits are no longer theoretical—the future of law firm leasing and design is now.
Tom Lasky is a founding member of the Forum Group, specializing in commercial brokerage and consulting, as part of the Southfield-based Farbman Group family of companies. For more information, visit or