Ever since lawyers became common in the Western hemisphere, their natural habitat was the spacious office, lush with armchairs and room to roam. But now, more and more attorneys are finding their working space encroached upon.
A recent legal sector survey by Cushman & Wakefield found that a majority of law firms seek to significantly shrink each attorney’s office space in the future, driven by a need to cut costs and stay competitive. This trend is already noticeable and bound to affect the Manhattan office market, where the legal sector is an important lessee.
U.S. law firms have already reduced their expenditure on real estate by two to four percent over the past ten years, according to the survey among 286 law firms across the country. 83 percent of the firms participating in the survey said they will, at some point, implement single-size offices for partners and associates — in effect, shrinking partners’ offices. A further 48 percent said they would target an office size of less than 500 s/f per attorney.
Law firms in the U.S. currently take up two to three times more office space per employee than banking, finance, insurance and technology industries, according to Cushman & Wakefield — but possibly not for much longer.
Sherry Cushman, head of Cushman & Wakefield’s Legal Sector Advisory Group, said that vacant offices, “antiquated areas” such as law libraries, and space inefficiencies due to old design, are in part to blame. Many law firms are likely part with these areas when their current leases end.
The trend towards fewer secretaries in the legal sector is another factor that will reduce office space. Due to technological advances and a changing work culture, lawyers are now doing more work themselves that used to be done by secretaries. David Kleinhandler, of CBRE’s Law Firm Practice Group, said that law firms are looking to increase their secretary to attorney ratio to 7-8 to one, from a current 3-4 to one.
This trend has led the legal sector to demand different types of offices. “Law firms are more interested in a smaller floor plate, this works a lot better for them,” said Lisa Kiell of Jones Lang LaSalle, who has represented several law firms. As libraries and secretaries become redundant, the firms have less use for interior space and are looking for a higher window-to-floor ratio.
According to Kiell, Boston Properties’ new office tower 250 West 55th Street is an example of a building that appeals to the legal sector. “They really built it with law firms in mind,” she said. “It has a very efficient center core and the right core-to-window dimensions.” Law firms Kaye Scholer and Morrison & Foerster have both signed leases in the building.
Despite the changes, the legal sector is likely to continue to use up more space per employee than other industries. “Law firm offices are not as dense as those of financial services companies. Lawyers need privacy — they can’t be dealing with confidential matters in an open environment,” said CBRE’s David Kleinhandler.
“And if you make individual offices smaller, you also need more collaborative space. Partners still need to meet somewhere. The overall office sizes will shrink, but not as dramatically.” Kleinhandler added that New York law firms have been reluctant to experiment with open-plan offices, as their counterparts in London have. Single-size offices for partner and associates, common in most parts of the U.S., also haven’t been accepted in New York yet.
“As law firms go, nobody wants to go first,” said Lisa Kiell of Jones Lang Salle. “Lawyers often don’t want to give up their private offices and are generally slower to embrace change in office layout than corporate users.” She added that some firms are also worried that a less spacious office layout may make it more difficult to attract new recruits.
Change may be slow, but Sherry Cushman is convinced that it is coming. “Firms that have been in space for 10-to-15-plus years are ranging from 900 to 1,200 s/f per attorney,” she said. “These firms are looking now at future design efficiencies and operational changes to support their business that will reduce their per attorney ratios to 650 to 750 s/f per attorney — for a reduction of 25 to 40% in overall square footage.”