Editor's note: This is the second in a series of articles examining how law firms are thinking smaller when it comes to the space they need, the costs they pay for labor and the nonlegal services they handle.
The recession combined with the growing use of technology has left large law firms with fewer associates, and even fewer legal secretaries.
The shrinking of law firm staff has also meant the shrinking of law firm space as the nation's largest firms slash the amount of office space they lease and revamp the way they organize staff, conference rooms, attorney offices and reception areas.
"Any large law firm who's been in their space for 10 years or more, it's largely obsolete in a lot of ways," said Glenn D. Blumenfeld of Tactix Real Estate Advisors in Philadelphia. "I think you can tell that by the number of law firms who have recently moved or done substantial renovations to their space, which is virtually all of them."
The leverage model of partners to associates and secretaries to attorneys have both been reduced. There aren't as many associates in law firms as there once was and the younger associates who are there are relying on secretaries much less.
Now when walking around in law firm offices, there is "a sea of empty secretarial stations that are really spaces to store empty filing boxes," Blumenfeld said.
In the "old days." partners were given three-window offices and associates got two windows. Everything else was put in the interior space libraries, secretaries outside each lawyer's office, filing rooms, paralegals and conference rooms. Partners had conference tables in their offices and that is where client meetings were held, he said.
Now, attorney offices are shrinking, though firms haven't yet made the leap to moving lawyers into interior space. And firms are figuring out what to do with the middle portions of their buildings. Many are creating secretary "pods," Blumenfeld said, in which secretaries sit in groups at each corner of a floor and assist a pool of attorneys.
And rather than putting money into sprucing up all of the floors a law firm occupies, firms are often focusing their dollars on a single floor for reception and conference areas the only place clients will see, Blumenfeld said. The goal for law firms is to find narrow, rectangular buildings that maximize perimeter space and minimize the core area, he said.
Mary Ashenbrenner of Wells Fargo's legal specialty group in Pennsylvania said that while it might not make sense for Pennsylvania firms to save money through moving back-office operations to cheaper locales, they should be looking at how to save money on rent in the state.
"When firms have the opportunity to renegotiate their leases or give back a floor, they are absolutely taking advantage of those opportunities," Ashenbrenner said. "Firms are always looking at their space to see how they can do more with less space."