From left to right, CBRE executive managing director Brandon Forde, Akerman chairman emeritus Andrew Smulian, Greenspoon Marder deputy managing partner Rebecca Faith Bratter, Bilzin Sumberg managing partner-elect Albert Dotson Jr., Holland & Knight partner Vivian de las Cuevas-Diaz, Shutts & Bowen chief operating officer Frederick O’Malley, CBRE senior vice president Shay Pope and CBRE Southeast lead for the Workplace practice Emily Neff. They spoke at a panel Wednesday, May 9, in Brickell on the evolution of law firms’ offices. Photo: Lidia Dinkova/ALM

The evolution of law firm real estate — from a reduction of office size and an emphasis on amenities to making all offices the same size or sharing them — has taken hold across South Florida to varying degrees.

CBRE Inc. research, including a 2017 Legal-Sector-Trends national and a regional study, shows firms are already implementing or evaluating changes to their real estate.

Among the South Florida trends are shrinking the traditional threshold of 800 to 1,000 square feet per lawyer to 550 to 700 square feet, and reducing support staff from one for every two to four lawyers to one for every five to 10, according to the study released in March.

South Florida law firm representatives discussed how their real estate is evolving Wednesday in a session at CBRE’s Miami office in the Brickell Financial District, which is also home to many firms large and small.

About two years ago, Akerman moved its Miami office from the downtown SunTrust International Center to Three Brickell City Centre, where all attorneys regardless of seniority have the same size office — 170 square feet, said former chairman Andrew Smulian.

“There was a little bit of trepidation at first. I think (there was ) more concern whether the glass will remain clear or we will frost the glass,” Smulian said.

But not all firms have embraced this equitable approach.

Bilzin Sumberg and Shutts & Bowen still have varying office sizes.

“Part of that is legacy and part of that is a focus on we need the partners to still have meetings with clients in their office,” said Albert Dotson, Bilzin Sumberg managing partner-elect.

Shutts & Bowen considered a universal office size but ended up with two — larger for partners and smaller for associates.

“Some of it is dictated by the floor plan,” said Frederick O’Malley, Shutts & Bowen chief operating officer.

The firm, however, decreased the space per attorney, echoing one of the findings in the CBRE studies.

When the law firm moved its downtown Miami office in November 2015, both partners and associates moved into smaller offices, O’Malley said. Shutts & Bowen moved across the street from the Miami Center to the Southeast Financial Center.

While room per attorney decreased, Shutts & Bowen still kept the same total size when it moved and repurposed the remaining square footage as conference and multipurpose space, O’Malley said.

Panelists noted meeting space is another aspect being evaluated.

“We needed more conference space and more common space. We were having a lot of difficulty with client meeting. And we also went to multipurpose space that could be subdivided. We have one of our larger spaces that could be divided to make one large meeting room or to make two,” O’Malley said.

 

TIME TO CONFER

Holland & Knight also has changed its approach to conference rooms.

“The traditional law firm has an entryway conference room and then offices in the back,” said Vivian de las Cuevas-Diaz, a Holland & Knight partner.

The 33rd floor of the firm’s Brickell office is its conference center, and all other floors have smaller conference rooms, de las Cuevas-Diaz said.

The 24th floor is a hybrid mix with a traditional large conference room as well as smaller meeting spaces.

“We took the best of both worlds,” she said.

Across U.S. cities, the average reduction in law firm square footage was 27 percent from 2010 to 2017, according to the CBRE study.

But a closer look shows firms might be finding other ways to reduce attorney space, such as breaking away from the traditional one-office-per-lawyer setup and having two or three lawyers work in the same office.

“In some of our offices, we are already seeing the joint-space for associates or the open space for our lobbying group,” de las Cuevas-Diaz said.

But she cautioned there might be issues with confidentiality.

“I am probably fine with two associates in an office. I think from a partner perspective, one of the things that I personally am concerned with is confidentiality. There’s just a lot of concerns, whether it’s management of the firm or clients, that I just don’t see how we can openly air. I think that’s going to be a challenge that I think all law firms face,” de las Cuevas-Diaz said

And despite all the talk about more industries allowing employees to work remotely from home, in the legal field at least the office is here to stay — just in a different form than before.

“We all spend, even with this flexible schedule, a lot more time in our offices than we do anywhere else,” de las Cuevas-Diaz said. “I think the one thing all law firms have it clear is how do we make that environment the best possible. We just all do it a little differently.”