Legal Management | More Space, Lower Costs

More Space, Lower Costs

Kim Hong, March/April 2011 Download PDF

It’s been called a “perfect storm.” The current financial crisis has wreaked havoc on the business world across all sectors, and according to market analysts, it has permanently changed the way law firms do business. From reducing starting salaries and billing rates to cutting staff, it is clear that for law firms, efficiency and fiscal responsibility are more important than ever.

But it isn’t all doom and gloom, especially when it comes to design strategies for the contemporary legal workplace. The typical law firm relocates, renovates, or expands every eight to 15 years. This is a complex and demanding process – yet it is also an opportunity to take stock of a practice and incorporate new, money-saving features. In turn, this can mean positive change for law firms without sacrificing quality.

Several trends that had already been emerging prior to the financial crisis make the legal industry especially well prepared for this task. These include the shift toward a client-focused workplace, the drive to reduce overhead, digitized recordkeeping, and the generationally based shift in personnel toward collaborative work styles. Available or excess space in a firm’s current layout can be better put to use elsewhere. Such changes in office design can save law firms up to 20% of their space.

Spending less money on facilities while creatively designing spaces improves the bottom line by making the most of real estate investments – and it also harmonizes with a more horizontally oriented corporate culture. Legal interiors have traditionally been arranged in space-intensive, rigid, and hierarchical fashion, but law firms now more than ever are looking at every opportunity to increase the uses of their work settings. Designers can help law firms by providing interior architecture that supports the business mission and culture of the practice while responding to the new culture of cost-effectiveness.

Saving space

To save money and increase efficiency, many law firms are investing in large conference centers, or large areas with public functions that are clustered close to the reception area. Why? First, collaborative work styles are easily facilitated in a conference center. Second, conference centers are by their nature multi-functional rooms where meeting, videoconferencing, and even dining can comfortably take place. In the last year, for example, the demand for videoconferencing has increased. Firms only expect that the need for videoconferencing – and the space to install – will grow.

Conference centers accommodate a variety of needs and improve operational efficiency because they are more easily serviced. The consolidation of shared functions in a single public area reduces the overall footprint needed by a firm and pares down costs. A large conference center prevents clients and guests from accessing the office areas and back-of-house functions, which is good for security. It can also mean more good news for the budget: designers can use high-end finishes in the defined public area and save their clients money by using more modest materials in the work areas.

The Philadelphia office of White and Williams, LLP used this type of arrangement when the firm renovated its offices. They made a clear decision to carve out a defined public area that includes the reception lobby and conference rooms. The reception area was relocated to the front of a windowed wall, which makes it a welcoming place to receive guests. The adjacent area acts as a secondary lounge for visitors and doubles as a breakout space for the adjoining conference rooms.

Young Conaway Stargatt & Taylor LLP, based in Wilmington, Delaware, realized that better space flexibility could help them optimize the return on their facilities investment. So, when they decided to move their offices, they increased the space dedicated to their conference center from 5% to 11%. (They were able to save 20% more space by using digital records, as opposed to hard-copy files and archives.) As a result, the center became the focal point of the office; it includes private phone rooms, small meeting rooms and visitor lounges off to the side. Pocket doors provide privacy or can open into the public area, therefore extending the shared space.

More multi-tasking

Even more than offering greater flexibility for internal affairs, some law firms want to be able to use their conference centers for everything from training sessions and staff meetings to after-work social events with clients. Fox Rothschild LLP found that it was less expensive to devote more of the space in their Philadelphia office to a 22-seat multipurpose room. This upfront investment can benefit the firm over time, since it avoids the need for the firm to rent offsite facilities for big events. Since they expanded their conference center, Fox Rothschild has used it for dinners, cocktail parties, training sessions, and even a company blood drive.

Likewise, Morgan, Lewis & Bockius added four conference rooms in the firm’s Philadelphia office that were designed with optimal flexibility. The conference center addresses a growing need to accommodate large functions, such as partner and all-staff meetings, which had previously been held in rented space. The rooms are also outfitted with strategically placed built-in A/V technology that can be used when the rooms are subdivided for smaller events or when the space is fully open. Even the conference center coordinator’s desk is fully flexible: it can be converted into a bar for events and after-hours functions.

In the conference rooms designed for White and Williams, deep storage closets with frameless doors help achieve the ultra-flexible spaces the firm desired. When the room needs to be used as a “workroom,” the attorneys can spread out and collaborate. When the room needs to function as a conference room, the boxes of documents can stay in the closets and be out of sight. This type of arrangement has become very popular for larger cases when the preparation often spills out across a room. Such flexibility is especially appealing to the firm’s litigators and labor attorneys, as speedy, cost-effective space changes support rapid project fluctuations.

Young Conaway’s 14 new conference center rooms also epitomize the flexibility that other firms are now seeking. These rooms vary in size from intimate rooms that seat six people to an expansive suite of three adjoining rooms that each seat up to 30 people, with additional seating for 20 people around the periphery. When it is opened up, the large suite can be configured for either auditorium-style seating or special event dining. The firm uses these meeting rooms for a wide variety of events, ranging from staff luncheons to client parties, and this decreases the firm’s need to rent space elsewhere.

Greener and leaner

Environmental stewardship is everyone’s responsibility, and law firms are no exception. In fact, many firms are foregrounding environmental sustainability in their workplaces and taking advantage of relocations and renovations to improve their degree of eco-friendliness.

With the growing demand of conference centers, concerns grew over wasting energy and keeping operational costs down. At first glance, conference centers might appear to be a black hole for energy costs, because they require more lighting fixtures and up-to-date technology. However, it has since been proven that this thinking does not hold up. Designers are taking care to incorporate “green” solutions into their designs, which saves energy and lowers costs.

More law firms are choosing to have bright and open interiors, which is a drastic change from the traditional dark paneled environments of the past. Natural light clearly saves energy. And, in the new collaborative legal workplace, windows are no longer a perk reserved solely for partners with corner offices; most conference centers have abundant natural light, which benefits everyone and means that fewer energy-consuming fixtures are required. Incorporating more efficient lighting fixtures and natural light can net an annual energy savings of 20-30% for law firms, while simultaneously creating a healthier workplace for all.

In addition, firms are taking care to prevent lights from being left on for lengthy periods of time when their conference centers are not being used. Efficient lighting systems and lighting controls can prevent the need for firms to rely upon all their employees to turn lights off without requiring excessive signage. In Young Conaway’s office, the waiting areas are located near windows, and they have daylight sensors that dim the electric lighting when natural light is sufficient. Dimmers can also allow a firm to control the ambiance of its interior spaces and extend the life of its lighting systems.

Finally, law firms have also embraced videoconferencing, and new conference centers can comfortably accommodate this trend while also saving costs. Videoconferencing is changing the way that offices and clients connect and collaborate. With more than 500 lawyers and 16 offices nationally, Fox Rothschild is taking advantage of videoconferencing technology, which is more economical than shuttling employees around offices for face-to-face meetings. The firm’s headquarters has a 103-inch flat screen that can conference up to 15 of the firm’s offices at the same time.


Conference rooms have so many features – and so many benefits – that firms are doubling the amount of space that they had previously allocated to them. The firm of Young Conaway increased its conference facilities from 5% in its former office to 11% in its new office. The Philadelphia office of White & Williams previously set aside only 3% of its 140,000-square-foot office for a conference center. It is now designing new offices in which 10% of the space, or about 12,000 square feet of its 120,000 square foot office, will be used for conferences and meetings.

With the shifts in the legal profession – collaborative work environments, open spaces, more social functions with clients – law firms will have to invest in multi-functional and multi-purpose rooms. Like dark wood paneling, filing rooms, and law libraries, individual space is shrinking as common areas grow. Conference centers can also increase a firm’s cost-effectiveness, a fact that is causing many law firms to assess their existing space and redesign it. Despite the costs of renovating their spaces, many firms are finding that the payback is worth the time and cost.


about the author
Keumpyo (Kim) Hong, IIDA, LEED AP, the Director of Interior Design at Francis Cauffman Architects, has more than 19 years of experience in the design of corporate, institutional and hospitality environments.

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