The corner office. For many, it has symbolized the pinnacle of success in a law firm. Yet, some would argue, the corner office also represents an outdated and impractical approach to managing one of a law firm’s most expensive and important resources — space. When our firm — Best Best & Krieger — set out to find innovative ways to address real estate costs and usage across our nine offices, we developed a plan that we believe eliminates wasted space, decreases expenses and, in many cases, does away with the corner office. What we gained was a creative way to provide our attorneys, staff and clients with comfortable, efficient office space while improving our bottom line. The process was professionally rewarding, and surprisingly, not as difficult as some might expect.
Have a strategy
When I joined BB&K in 2009, one of my first objectives was to address the firm’s real estate use and create a strategy for the future. At that time, the firm had eight offices throughout California (we have since added a ninth office in Washington, D.C.). An audit of each office revealed little consistency in terms of design, real estate brokers, architects and general contractors. Each office was very much a reflection of the local market (which can have benefits), but it resulted in a disjointed firmwide real estate approach. With the opportunity to address seven leases within the coming 24 months, the time was perfect to create a new real estate strategy.
Build a team
I knew an experienced real estate broker was a critical player in establishing a new strategy. After interviewing several, we selected the one whose experience and input proved to be invaluable; he was my "right hand" on every real estate move we made. We also knew a single architectural firm could help develop a vision for our spaces, implementing consistent design standards with the flexibility required to bring forth the culture of each office while living within the restrictions of each space. Later, we added a single project management team to help supervise construction and a single furniture vendor. This team approach also increased our buying power. By negotiating our leases and designing and furnishing our offices on a firmwide basis, we gained economies of scale.
Working with BB&K’s executive committee, we determined that our real estate strategy should incorporate three key goals into each office: establish a 500 square-foot ratio per attorney (down from approximately 800 square feet); establish consistency in terms of look and feel, especially in the lobbies ("You should know when you’re in a BB&K office"); and incorporate the concept of "hoteling" with consistent amenities, furnishings and technology. With nearly 200 attorneys, many of whom often travel to other firm offices, we wanted to ensure that an attorney could work seamlessly from anywhere. Our new hoteling space includes traditional and "soft" seating in an open area. Several attorneys can work together in one space or use small, quiet areas when they need privacy. This practice has eliminated the need to set aside private offices for visitors who may never come.
We quickly identified that, for some offices and practices, an open-plan concept could provide a multitude of benefits. Such a design provides for open areas where attorneys and staff work side by side, encouraging collaboration. These spaces rely upon natural light and glass to increase the open feel and provide energy that can be zapped in closed, dark spaces. An open, collaborative design decreases the need for private offices, which were moved to the interior for use when attorneys needed a quiet space or to hold a private meeting. This also freed up the window line to be used for more common area space.
The open-plan concept is in no way an innovative design concept. However, in the legal industry the number of firms that have tried it are scarce. Law firms are typically risk-averse, and while many have been considering new approaches to real estate for some time, few have wanted to go first. It was gratifying for me to see that our executive committee and partnership was willing to consider new approaches and lead as opposed to follow.
No two offices or practices are exactly the same. Some of our offices were more receptive to the open, collaborative concept than others. Certain attorneys were able to envision such an environment and embraced it while others preferred a more traditional approach that favored private offices along the window line. We decided from the outset that we were not going to force a single approach on the entire firm. Because office cultures and practice needs vary, a cookie-cutter scheme wasn’t going to work. Instead we held fast to the consistent elements of increasing efficiency and emphasizing our brand and took a flexible approach to other design elements.
In our new Riverside office, we incorporated same-sized private offices and used the corner office spaces as lounge areas where attorneys are encouraged to meet or work independently. Other corner spaces were used for hoteling and the (significantly smaller) library.
Our Los Angeles, Ontario and Irvine offices wanted to try a different approach when moving into new space last year. The Irvine office boasts an open plan with interior glass front offices and multiple lounge areas in addition to traditional conference rooms. These lounge areas are more informal, but are outfitted with all the tools attorneys need to complete their work. Soft couches or a large kitchen island replace boardroom seating. In Ontario, the partners embraced an open-plan concept as well. Six of the eight partners resident in Ontario volunteered to work full time in open workstations as opposed to traditional offices.
Same but different
Each office was given some choices in terms of look and feel to help reflect each office’s unique culture. Offices could choose paint and furnishings from previously designed certain color palettes. While the furniture is largely the same in all the new offices (which keeps the cost down) the colors and finishes vary. Each lobby is branded with a unique metal screen that bears our name and greets visitors upon entering the office.
Technology is key
The cutting-edge workplace requires cutting-edge technology. Our firm invested in a technology platform that allows attorneys to freely move throughout the office and from location to location with minimal interruption. Wireless handsets allow phone calls to be taken uninterrupted into private phone booths and phone extensions follow the attorney to wherever he is working that day. Our computer systems are designed so that a user can move anywhere in the office and pick up where they left off without ever logging out of the system.
Change cannot be ‘class based’
As with any change initiative, the best approach is to show the partners the benefits and find champions who embrace it. Specifically, in terms of the open space concept, the change cannot be "class based." Our use of the open-space concept would not be successful if partners continued to have private offices and associates were assigned to open work areas. When partners give up their offices and show they’re serious about supporting the concept, associates are far more likely to be receptive.
Our new office designs provide many perks. We built our lunchrooms on the window line, which in a traditional office may have been in the interior. We invested in nicer amenities. Not only do our attorneys and staff enjoy these areas, but we can also entertain clients in these spaces. Because our offices are on upper floors, we have expansive views of some of California’s most beautiful cities and landscapes. Our designs let everyone in the office enjoy them.
What we accomplished
In 2014 our occupancy costs will be 14 percent lower than when we began the project in 2010. Even after taking into account our capital spent to build the six new office spaces, we will still save 8 percent in 2014. Over the full term of all our new leases, we will save an average of 9 percent per year on occupancy expenses. We are saving money and yet we still have space to grow. As we add new attorneys, their real estate costs are not only covered, but we are spending less than we did a few years ago. As BB&K grows, we have taken one of our biggest overhead items out of the equation. Most importantly, these spaces are working. Sure, there were growing pains and not everyone is an immediate convert. However, the vast majority of our attorneys and staff are productive and enjoying the new spaces. And for the most part, we’ve done away with the corner office.
Jamie Zamoff is the chief operating officer of Best Best & Krieger. Zamoff spent a brief stint working in the technology field in the early 2000s and borrowed several of that industry’s real estate concepts for use at BB&K. He can be reached at Jamie.Zamoff@bbklaw.com.