While many organizations are embracing a “wait and see” strategy when managing their physical space, a number of law firms currently working with IA Interior Architects have decided to take a different tack. John Hopkins, Design Director at IA Interior Architects, has worked with many law firms that are experimenting with new approaches for their future workplace. "IA is engaging leadership teams to prioritize goals," he notes, "and establishing new space types and metrics to craft a unique solution for each firm."
Because of attorney experiences working remotely during COVID-19, new concerns are influencing design goals and methods for creating the law firm of the future. Primary among those is: in-office attendance and crafting in-person communities. "Generally, we come into the office to see others," remarks Hopkins. "If it's a ghost town, then we reconsider why we come in—but if there are people, and activity—we feel more encouraged to return." Hopkins goes on to compare the experience to restaurant patrons choosing to visit a busier eatery over one that's empty. This effect makes it all the more urgent for law firms to find a way to attract teams back to the office.
When asked to hypothesize how he thinks law firms will overcome this hurdle, Hopkins looked at benchmarking from five active projects and determined that hoteling seemed to be the most likely route. “We’re helping put into place realistic hoteling policies for our clients so people have the chance to go into work and make real connections—building relationships and being inspired by each other’s energy.” While many industries have embraced hoteling for years, US law firms have been comparatively hesitant, in part because private-office square footage is often still linked to seniority. But IA’s legal practice team is predicting large-scale changes in how the legal profession looks at work and sees a number of shifts enabling hoteling to become a reality.
Flexibility in Law Firm Design
In all likelihood, we’ll probably see industry-wide square footage per attorney dip to 80-70% of pre-pandemic levels. Less me space and more we space: as private office sizes and quantities are reduced, more collaboration space types are made available. Legal clients are looking at a wider variety of technology-enabled meeting rooms, client spaces, and food service spaces than we’ve seen in the past, as well as greater flexibility for these spaces. “There are some areas that can’t be simulated at home,” comments Stephanie Long, Managing Director of IA's Austin Studio. “Making these spaces adaptable, more flexible, and very easy to use will help create room for the community-building spaces and amenities that are starting to be prioritized.”
Meeting spaces that double as mock courtrooms as well as spaces for virtual depositions are examples. Many firms are expecting virtual depositions to continue to be popular. As a result, teams at IA are outfitting meeting rooms with adaptable furniture and advanced AV equipment so that both purposes can be served.
Firms realize the value in simulating certain aspects of the work-from-home experience as well. They are providing a broader range of spaces, allowing users to choose where they work based on their ideal posture, light or sound level for a given task, embracing the experiences that many had at home as they migrated from place-to-place throughout the day.
Some Support Staff will Stay Home
What is another space saver? Many IA clients are providing support staff with the flexibility to work remotely. While legal assistants will still be coming into the office, nearly all of the firms that we’ve spoken with are allowing support/operations teams to stay almost entirely remote. When support teams do come to the office, IA is creating a shared operations suite as a designated area, including a variety of space types and support rooms where HR, Marketing, IT and other teams can successfully collaborate.
As specialization of space becomes more and more a part of this professional services sector's approach, IA envisions that client floors will become more common features. These specialized spaces, designed for meetings with existing clients, create a degree of separation between external-facing spaces and specialized work areas. Many firms are hoping such areas become useful for cross-selling, providing the tools and ambiance necessary to support multiple attorneys from various fields at once in client-facing situations.
OVERCOMING HOTELING HESITANCY
Many of the firms we’ve talked to are battling hoteling hesitancy—but the law firm of the future might just make use of next generation concierge services when it comes to overcoming this hurdle. We asked Marlene Liriano, Managing Director of IA's Miami Studio, how this might come into play. “We’re anticipating that more law firms will be relying on concierge services to work with attorneys and customize the office experience to their preferences, allowing for a more seamless and favorable experience.” Not incomparable with what was seen during the golden age of coworking, a number of industries outside of legal are expecting concierges, employee-engagement managers, and other support teams to make an enormous impact in drawing employees back to the office and creating community.
Many of our legal clients are considering some of the same approaches as those used in other market sectors—creating more community spaces to enable colleague connection and mentoring, advanced foodservice, improved air quality, more competitive amenities, etc. Ultimately, decisions should be made based on organizational culture, location, and size. It's more important than ever for firms to create and test new office environments to ensure they are enabling truly commute-worthy experiences.