Daily Dispatch

Ask the Experts

Who Gets the Best Office in Your Law Firm?

By | May.30.13 | Ask the Experts, Daily Dispatch, Law Practice Management

Question: We’re a fairly small law firm—15 lawyers, 9 partners—but it seems like we’re always fighting about who gets the best offices. Every time someone retires or leaves, it’s like a circus with everyone arguing about the empty office … and who gets the office of the person who got that office. How can we prevent this? It’s incredibly disruptive and creates rifts among the partners that just don’t need to happen!

Kim CoatesKim Coates: At our firm, attorneys are assigned 10-foot offices when they’re hired. After three years in practice, they are moved to a 15-foot office. Their office location is based on their hire date. If their larger office is not located near their administrative assistant, they have to change assistants. This sometimes deters them from taking a new office because they’ve established a working relationship with their assistant, so many stay put in their original office.

Kim Coates is Office Administrator at Munger, Tolles and Olson, LLP, in San Francisco. Kim has been with Munger, Tolles for more than 20 years. A devoted volunteer in the Bay Area legal community, she has organized food drives and holiday gift delivery to children in poverty, and aided in improving access and diversity in the legal profession.

Greg MaddenGreg Madden: What’s the best way to manage “cool office space” allocation? Do not have cool offices.

Or you could:

        • Dual (pistols or sabers)
        • Have a foot race
        • Have a push-up contest
        • See who can get their furniture in there first
        • Do a spelling contest
        • Hold a hot dog eating contest
        • Do a billable hour contest
        • Have a new client contest
        • Or choose the person with the best motivational posters

In all seriousness, our office assignments have generally been based on the particular office location and the respective desire to move into that office. After location, it is based on the seniority of either partners or associates. Our offices are a bit convoluted, so it has not been much of an issue. However, we will be moving soon and will probably encounter a more serious challenge.

Greg Madden is Administrator with Rhodes Hieronymus Jones Tucker & Gable in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He is a member of the ALA Board of Directors. Greg holds a bachelor’s degree in Business Administration and a master’s degree in Business Education and is retired from the United States Marine Corps as a Lieutenant Colonel.

Cheryl NelsonCheryl Nelson: At our firm, (we do not have a written policy) partners have the largest (and nicest) offices, with corner offices being especially nice. Space is offered first by partner date, then by hire date. Associates have the same size offices and are assigned space in their practice areas.

Cheryl Nelson, CLM, PHR, is Human Resources Manager at Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi, LLP, in Minneapolis. A legal administrator with over 23 years of legal management experience, she is a member of the ALA Board of Directors.

Charles VolkertCharles Volkert: Ideally, a law firm would develop guidelines to help ensure that physical resources are used in the most efficient manner possible, such as identifying the appropriate square footage per functional title or practice group. For example, a “cool” office might be assigned based on tenure with the firm or title or a certain business need.

In the case of assigning smaller versus larger offices, an office on the smaller end of the square-footage scale might be assigned to someone who is more likely to be working the majority of the time in a group setting. Conversely, someone whose work responsibilities include frequent meetings with clients or numerous individuals within the firm or who must regularly work on confidential matters—a managing partner, senior-level attorney or administrator—might be assigned an office on the upper end of the square-footage range.

Research that Robert Half Legal conducted for its Future Law Office program indicates technology is impacting law firm’s use of physical space. Smartphones and tablets, laptops, wireless networks, secure portals and cloud computing make it possible to work from any location at any time and to accomplish a great deal remotely. Telecommuting and flexible work schedules have become more commonplace.

With fewer legal professionals needing to be physically present in the office, the footprint of today’s law firm is shrinking and real estate requirements are changing. Many law firms are designing spaces with fewer and smaller individual offices for associates, including senior-level attorneys, and more shared spaces for telecommuters and legal teams. They also are installing more conference rooms, including separate meeting areas for clients near reception, and open work areas for teams. We’re also seeing fewer different-sized offices and more standard office designs.

Charles Volkert III is executive director for Robert Half Legal and co-managing director of Robert Half Legal eDiscovery Services. A noted author and speaker, and former litigator, he holds a JD from the University of Miami School of Law. Robert Half Legal provides highly skilled legal professionals for law firms and corporate legal departments, as well as legal project management and managed review services. 

Teresa WalkerTeresa J. Walker: I would not recommend having a written policy for office assignments; lawyers don’t like policies very much since they have such strong autonomy personality traits. I would encourage that assignments be done with a good bit of flexibility. It’s one of those things that you need to fix quickly and easily if it’s creating a major problem for you.

Using the significant role approach can be easy, as most people understand when a key firm leader such as a board member or practice group leader winds up in one of the “cool offices.” And, frankly, those folks deserve them.

Teresa Walker is Chief Operating Officer at Waller Lansden Dortch & Davis, LLP, in Nashville, with more than 30 years of experience. She has been with her firm for as long as she’s been a legal administrator, watching its substantial growth from 16 attorneys to more than 180 today. Teresa is a member of the ALA Board of Directors.

Questions for Management?

No, not every law firm has a full-time administrator or professional management to guide them. Send us your questions via email, or use the comment section below, and we’ll pass them on to the experts at the Association of Legal Administrators. Watch for the best ones here in “Ask the Experts.”

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