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Just when you think you have technology figured out, it changes. The same thing can be said about designing office space for law firms. With the booming real estate market and the impact of technology, the planning and design of law firms has changed dramatically in the past two years. Yes, we are still focused on designs that achieve greater productivity and profitability, but in the new economy, law firms are just as focused on providing a comfortable and efficient space for their most important asset — their people. A difficult planning issue is dealing with projected growth over the term of a 10- or 15-year lease. In an economy like this one, it’s easy to quickly fill up an initial build-out. No sooner have you moved into your new space then you’ve run out of space. Investing more time in space programming and strategic planning can prevent this from happening. The initial program is a vital part of the overall real estate strategy. More firms are realizing that a methodical upfront effort is a wise investment. Through careful analysis and interviews with practice group leaders and administrative staff, a program can be developed that indicates the square footage needed on an annual basis. Projections of growth should be estimated through the end of the lease, typically 10 or 15 years. Using the program, real estate strategies can be developed to coincide with annual growth. Many firms today are leasing space that will meet their growth projections over the course of their lease. To eliminate the financial burden of carrying the annual rental of the expansion space during the first few years of the lease while it is not needed, many firms are subletting that space. Firms are doing this not only to control real estate options and to get more upfront build-out allowance, but also because landlords are not allowing short-term options such as three years. Law firms today have a lean and efficient look. Conserving square footage is critical, given that real estate costs are continually increasing. Firms are allocating less space for each attorney, from 800-plus square feet to 600-700 square feet, except for litigators, who typically get more than 700 square feet per attorney. MANAGING THE PAPER Overall efficiency is initially achieved by reduced office size, but the key to most firms achieving greater efficiency is the management of paper. Promises of the paperless office have not become a reality — attorneys simply cannot let go of the hard copy. But paper redundancy can be controlled. After personal workspace, the largest consumer of space is document storage. Whether it is housed in file rooms, accounting, legal assistant shelving, secretarial files, or in the library, paper is a huge space consumer. By reducing or eliminating the redundant storage areas on the attorney floors, the firm not only enjoys the benefits of reducing overall square footage but also makes room for more attorney offices, and conference rooms. To make people feel more comfortable about changing the way they work, they have to be educated in the use of new tools. The crux of this issue is to make electronic document retrieval easier than systems currently in place. Many firms, reluctant to send documents off site, are designing document storage and retrieval centers on the lower levels of their buildings or in adjacent sites. This option not only reduces overall real estate costs, but also keeps access to documents readily available. LOWER COSTS THROUGH DESIGN The following design trends should be considered for additional savings: � A slight reduction in the size of partner and associate offices can yield unexpected space savings. For example, reducing partner offices from 225 square feet to 200 square feet and associate offices from 150 square feet to 135 square feet can result in one additional partner office per floor in some buildings. Many firms are considering same-size offices for all attorneys. This scenario not only is a space saver, but also helps to deal with shorter partnership tracks. � Furniture designed to meet the custom needs of the occupant, as well as the office size and shape, is one of the best ways to maximize the use of space. Workwalls in associate offices and paralegal and law clerk spaces, for example, are being designed for eight out of every 10 new law firms today. � Fewer secretarial stations reflect the changing ratio of secretary to attorneys; many firms are moving toward 3-to-1. And the filing area within these stations are being reduced due to increased electronic file storage and retrieval. � Conference and project rooms are becoming multipurpose rooms with movable walls that reconfigure the rooms into variable sizes and with state-of-the-art electronics for teleconferencing and individual computer hook-ups for working sessions. � Many law firms are locating litigation centers, along with document storage, to lower levels or adjacent sites to achieve the same cost- and space-saving results. These types of spaces serve as areas for discovery and short-term storage. This works better for the flexible needs of short-term cases than occupying a room on the main floors for an extended period. With additional computer and telephone outlets, together with durable finishes, war rooms are better suited to accommodate a variety of uses. And having more war rooms or litigation centers eases the demand for conference rooms. Segregating the war-room functions from conferencing activity means that interior finishes for war rooms should be chosen for durability and maintainability, and finishes for conference rooms can be upgraded. � The dining or cafeteria facility is another opportunity to create a flexible space. With folding partitions, a portion of a dining room can be divided during nonpeak hours to serve functions such as computer training. � Implementing the use of electronic library access services can reduce shelf space in the library. But the library is still an important amenity: a place to retreat from the office and telephone, or to simply take a break during a long day. Reading areas and work areas should not be reduced along with stack space. � Office support functions, including the information services, word processing, and office services, are being consolidated in non-prime space. Many firms are taking advantage of the availability of lower-level or off-site space at a reduced rent to house these functions. � Copy machines are constantly changing, as are fax machines, printers, and other equipment that traditionally required large central workrooms. Firms are looking to outside sources for copy and binding services. Firms are also looking to their suppliers to warehouse bulk purchases of supplies, thus eliminating large storage areas in high-rent buildings. In addition to reducing the overall area, occupancy costs can also be relieved by reducing operating costs. In terms of energy efficiency, a new building offers the greatest opportunity. We can build a better building today than was possible 10 years ago. Like everything else, improvements in construction products and methods of construction through more advanced technology have allowed us to design buildings that are much more energy efficient. Existing buildings can be retrofitted to be more energy-efficient, but the payback period should be analyzed before undertaking a construction project. One of the most important trends to note is the shift in the partner-to-associate ratio. During the 1990s, the goal of most firms was to achieve a ratio of 1-to-2 or better. The lure of the corporate and technology worlds has drained the pool of associates and made the current ratio closer to 1-to-1. Many associates are opting out of the law firm lifestyle for what is viewed as an easier pace with a greater reward outside of firms. For architects designing law firms, this has created a dramatic shift in the aesthetic environment. Law firms are recognizing that in order to retain associates, not only do they have to offer salary packages that compete with stock options, they also need to offer a different work environment. It started with casual Fridays. Now many firms are casual seven days a week or have a “dress for the day” policy. In terms of design, many firms want the image they project to be more casual and comfortable. They want to send this message to their staff, as well as their clients. Firms are also offering more amenities that send a message to the staff that the firm is sensitive to health and family issues. These amenities include fitness centers, emergency day care, lactation rooms, and options to telecommute. So what do all these trends mean for the future? In the 1990s, we could generalize about trends for the decade. But with the speed of the new economy, trend projections are reduced to a few years’ time. Law firms are slow to change; look for them to evolve instead. Firms will continue to seek ways to best use their space, to be more efficient, to practice law more effectively, and to recruit and retain their most valuable asset — their people. Sally R. Wilson, AIA, and Thomas C. E. Jones, AIA, are partners with the Washington, D.C.-based architectural/interiors firm of Spector, Knapp & Baughman ( www.spectorknapp.com).

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