Law office leaders are adjusting to the coronavirus pandemic by relying more on artificial intelligence and other high-tech tools, allocating more space for common areas and amenities, designating fewer desks and improving their office aesthetics.
Those are among the trends behind America’s future law office, according to new research conducted by Vocon, a national architecture, design and workplace strategy firm with offices in New York City and Cleveland.
Vocon’s predictions come from a survey of over 300 law associates, coast-to-coast consultations with clients about what they’ve been doing during the pandemic and a synthesis of current law industry-related real estate research.
Nearly all the attorneys Vocon polled (89 percent) said they prefer working remotely at least part of the week. Within that group, 40 percent want to work remotely at least three or four days per week, 31 percent are looking to do so one or two days and 17 percent want to switch solely to remote work.
Crucially, law offices plan to use real estate – their second biggest cost after payroll over the last two decades – more strategically. The legal industry has spent years gradually shifting to uniform office sizes, adjusting and improving staff-to-attorney ratios, contracting out support services and deploying technologies to find savings.
Pre-pandemic, law firms averaged 675 square feet per attorney at full capacity, according to a recent Cushman & Wakefield study. These days, law offices are striving to average 515 square feet per attorney, and almost two-thirds plan to use 400- to 600-square-foot spaces for each attorney, the same research found.
Law firms are already reapportioning space. This year, 41 percent of legal practices told Cushman & Wakefield they’ll use less than 600 square feet per attorney, an increase from 27 percent in 2020. But a third of law firms are still using more than 700 square feet per attorney, so many law offices are likely to soon invest substantially in repositioning their real estate.
Law firms are converting square feet set aside for individual attorneys into new meeting spaces and common, multi-use, tech-enabled areas, attorneys have told Vocon. New scheduling models are facilitating hoteling and hot desk models, allowing workers to reserve unassigned, private offices and desks for short-term use, while substantially reducing staff-to-space ratios and overall office occupancy levels.
Some of the findings in Vocon’s recent legal sector research are like the conclusions in a wider-ranging Vocon survey on the future of the American office. Last spring, 103 corporate leaders with almost 1 million workers at 72 companies nationwide, including law firms, took part in that survey.
Flexible schedules are likely to stay the norm, based on the 57 percent of law firm employees who said they’re willing to give up assigned seating for greater flexibility. Law firms want to spend more on technology to facilitate remote work and create operational efficiencies, while deploying support staff more judiciously to areas like billing and collections, according to a 2021 Citibank legal sector analysis, which echoed Vocon’s recent findings.
Fully a third of Vocon’s spring survey respondents reported creating room reservation systems, while 28 percent were using hoteling or hot desk models. But while it may sound ambitious to drop the average individual attorney’s office down to 515 square feet by 2026, law offices typically have a 0.8 to 1 ratio of support staff to lawyers, according to an earlier Citibank analysis from 2018.
So, allocating 515 square feet to each lawyer still equates to an average of 275 square feet for per law office employee or more than two-and-half times the 193 square feet set aside for the average U.S. office worker before the pandemic.
Put another way, law offices remain essential, and they don’t face extinction. They’re just being put to different uses. Physical offices help attorneys feel grounded and connected, they told Vocon.
Respondents in Vocons’ new legal field survey said they’re enduring remote work fatigue and they want to return fully to offices, pandemic permitting. Remote work can complicate mentoring and communication and decrease collaboration, incidental learning and serendipitous encounters.
The attorneys said they most missed “social interaction” (68 percent), “connection to company culture” (58 percent) and “impromptu collaboration” (48 percent) during remote work.
As a result, law office leaders said they’re currently renovating to create new space for team-building activities, offering more amenities and making offices safer and easier to use for a variety of purposes, while retaining larger suites for senior members.
Firm leaders also said they’re creating more visually appealing law offices, improving décor and helping workers feel more connected. The thinking is to use features like new, high-tech Zoom rooms, workout areas, eateries and outdoor workspaces to turn the office feel more like destinations and less like obligations.
Few in the legal industry would have anticipated that law firms would adapt so quickly to the shifting environment for offices and employee expectations.
But Covid-19 has shown that attorneys, while often considered to be focused on tradition, can be flexible and agile, responding effectively to unprecedented challenges.
A number of law firms are seeing the pandemic as a time to reinvent their workplaces and embrace flexibility to create community and engage employees.