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Question: Do law firms really need 100,000-plus square feet of office space anymore? Will coffee shops, home offices and airports be the law offices of the future, especially as the workforce gets younger?
Todd Summerfelt: Back in the ‘90s, the average law office space ratio was over 800 square feet per attorney. Today it is less than 700 square feet and will be closer to 500 square feet per attorney by 2020. Firmwide, however, reductions will come from spaces other than the attorney offices.
The typical law firm devotes only one-third of its space to attorney offices. Another third is in support staff workspaces, with the remaining third devoted to conference rooms, library, files and server rooms.
The biggest space reductions are likely to come from the last category, with libraries displaced by online reference materials; files becoming electronic images; and server rooms moving into the cloud. At the same time, the average attorney office will shrink in size and a single office may house multiple lawyers through telecommuting, office-sharing and hoteling.
However, we still need to interact face-to-face with clients and co-workers, creating a tension between demand for office space and pressure to be more cost-efficient.
I joke that to predict law firm office space trends you can simply look at what accounting firms have done over the past 10 years. Most of my “predictions” are commonplace in today’s accounting firms.
Todd Summerfelt is Chief Operating Officer of Carney Badley Spellman, a 45-lawyer firm in Seattle, WA. Todd has managed law firms for over 30 years prior to which he worked as a CPA.
Rick Thorning: While it is true that every organization is moving toward more flexibility in the workplace by implementing tools such as remote access, there will be an ongoing need for a significant footprint to accommodate work that benefits from physical collaboration, as well as to meet client needs. Meeting space will continue to be in high demand for client-facing events and relationship-building, when the value of face-to-face communication is paramount. And it will make sense for law firms to provide a benefit to clients by making meeting space available for their use — for example, to meet with an angel investor or evaluate a merger.
Many other professional service organizations are ahead of us in terms of how space is used, with perhaps the most significant example being the development of “hot desking” and “hoteling.” For the younger generations the appeal is strong — they tend to be the ones who value flexibility and autonomy over corner offices. Overall, it would appear that hoteling and its variants will reduce demand, but the success or maximization depends more on the culture of the firm than the technologies already available.
Rick Thorning is HQ Operations Manager at Perkins Coie LLP in Seattle, WA.
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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