Insights

Four key workplace takeaways for law firms

What are the real estate challenges and opportunities facing boutique law firms in the US?

2019-05-17

By Nicholas Schifferle
Director, Global Client Services – New York, Vancouver

and Jennifer Mannier
Associate - Workplace Strategist – New York

In a combined article with Colliers, M Moser’s Nicholas Schifferle and Jennifer Mannier share their insights on boutique law firms considering an office move. 

We’ve been representing law firms in their search for office space for many years, and we’ve seen how a near-term lease expiration can become an inflexion point for small and medium-sized law firms. Sometimes, it forces partners to confront their individual financial commitments and even the future of the firm.

Traditionally, smaller firms have rarely seen the need to market themselves through the aesthetics and design of their office space. Lower billable rates and a wealth of niche expertise have often been enough to draw in new clients, while a more intimate and entrepreneurial culture has helped to attract young attorneys looking for a better lifestyle and a more predictable path to becoming partner.

However, while larger law firms have been reducing their overheads for over a decade by taking less (but more efficient) space to stay competitive, support employee health and enhance performance, we believe that the time has come for boutique firms to follow suit.

Lawyers entering the workforce want to work in spaces that look more like consulting firms than traditional law firms.”

BNP Paribas, New York

BNP Paribas, New York

With a gradual move away from space symbolising status, clients are prioritising investment in “we spaces” over “me spaces”, with a greater focus on interaction, collaboration, performance, and overall employee experience.

Given the fast-evolving nature of work, here are four key takeaways when considering your new office space:

  • Takeaway 1: Plan in line with business objectives

Starting at least 18 months before the lease expiry, you and your partners should meet and discuss ideas for the adaptation of the firm’s business model, and how your forthcoming occupancy decision and strategy are an opportunity to progress towards those goals. 

  • Takeaway 2: Methodically explore location options

If your inclination is to stay in your current location, it is still critical that you conspicuously identify plausible alternatives (your landlord must be made aware you are looking elsewhere) to create leverage. Landlords don’t want to lose tenancies, but they understand that inertia prompts most tenants to renew and will exploit lazy tenants by offering below-market concessions and charging above-market rent. Make your landlord compete for your tenancy. 

If you feel your current office cannot adequately meet your firm’s future needs and vision, we recommend identifying several “built-to-suit” alternatives with the landlord who is footing the bill to design and construct your new space. While the firm will likely still be out-of-pocket for the costs of furnishing and providing technological infrastructure to any new space, it will still be much less than if you had to bear the cost of construction as well.

Epiq, New York

Epiq, New York

  • Takeaway 3: Don’t compromise service levels

It’s important for law firm partners to realise that it is indeed possible to provide top-level service in a reduced space.

We recently represented a small firm (about 20 lawyers) that occupied 16,000 sq. ft of space on Madison Avenue that was both inefficient and tired, but with an expansive outdoor balcony.  The partners believed it would be impossible to find space with similar outdoor access at the same price nearby, so their strong proclivity was to stay despite our belief that they only required about 10,000 sq. ft of space.

We went out to the market and were able to identify a 10,000 sq.ft full floor a few blocks away that comfortably accommodated the same headcount, with room for growth. We reduced their annual rent cost by 30% and, with the deft insight that we brought to the table very early in the process, were able to create a state-of-the-art workspace funded by the landlord.

If you allow enough lead time ahead of your lease expiration, engage a trusted real estate advisor and space designer and keep communication open among the partners well in advance of your lease expiration, you can place your boutique law firm in the best position to balance operating costs and capital needs. This will create an opportunity to enhance the firm’s brand to help attract/retain talent and present well to your valued clients.

Global Law Firm, San Francisco

Global Law Firm, San Francisco

  • Takeaway 4: Define the optimal work environment

Your goal should be to provide high-performance space for your entire team that enhances productivity and presents well to clients. Flexible/high-tech workplace strategies are required to stay competitive with other firms, which is why your space must accommodate a more mobile workforce that will concurrently appeal to the working needs of young attorneys. It’s important to recognise the growing desire and need for collaborative spaces that promote team/project-based work.

This also includes investing in emerging technologies that can help reduce cost, increase efficiency and improve the quality of your services. The latter can be achieved by incorporating critical elements of WELL into the workspace design to enable lawyers to concentrate longer and do their best work. For example, ergonomic seating, clean air and circadian lighting can enhance alertness and productivity, facilitating a direct return on investment for billable time.

Your new legal workplace should reflect the agility of the technology your people utilise, such as those that support physical and digital innovation. In the end, creating workplaces where employees can choose from a variety of work settings can optimise space, cater to individual work styles, enhance health and well-being, and attract the legal workforce of the future.

Explore the article in Law.com’s Mid Market Report

Also featured in The Real Deal

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