Legal Innovation Lab, ALA Conference—Toronto, Canada
A long table in a room.

How will lawyers work in the future?

Research Project Name

Legal Innovation Lab

What We Did

Gensler’s Legal and Professional Services Firms practice area designed and built a “legal innovation lab” in partnership with the ALA and leading technology, software, and furniture manufacturers (Bernhardt Design, Steelcase, Microsoft, Thomson Reuters, Herman Miller, Knoll, Hitplay, Creative Wood, POI Business Interiors, Interface). The lab was comprised of a series of vignettes used to share and test ideas for the future legal workplace. We developed the strategies and design solutions showcased in this exhibit based on the findings of our prior research into the legal workplace, including a roundtable of legal leaders and an analysis of our workplace performance data for lawyers and legal staff. At the end of the exhibit, we gave the 600+ attendees an exit survey, and analyzed the results of over 250 survey responses on the current state of the legal workplace as well as their firms’ openness to change.

The Context

The practice of law is undergoing a fundamental transformation. Our previous research and experience highlight numerous shifts, from a market in which lawyers’ clients are increasingly cost-conscious and value-focused, to a growing focus on teamwork and quality-of-life concerns. The design of the future law office must address these rapidly changing influences and align with a fundamental re-engineering of how legal work is, and will be, done.

We anticipate the law office of the future to be smaller, more flexible, more collaborative, more client-focused, and more technology enabled—employing workplace qualities many associate with business or management consulting firms today. Yet we also know that lawyers will continue to have workplace needs specific to their profession and tasks. An exploration of progressive workplace strategies through the lens of legal work today is necessary to create future work environments that continue to support legal work while adapting to new realities of the profession and market.

The Results

Change is a fact of life for law firms today, and leadership is fully aware—three in four survey respondents noted their firm’s partners are receptive to change. This need for change centers around two central premises: the need to improve real estate efficiency to stay lean and cost-competitive, and the need to evolve to attract talent and accommodate new ways of working.

Despite these initiatives, the majority of respondents reported that their firm continues to lease more space than is necessary. Larger firms are more likely to have excess space on their books. Recently designed firms are less likely to have excess space, confirming the focus on space reduction in recent years—though even among those whose offices have been redesigned recently, one in three reported their firm still has more space than is necessary.

Respondents noted the adoption of new technology, managing an increasingly multi-generational workforce, and the war for top talent as key trends impacting the legal industry, confirmed through discussions with attendees and a companion panel held at the ALA Toronto conference. Approaching these trends proactively is of vital importance for a firm’s long-term survival. Panelists also felt they were lacking a consistent set of best practices by which to adopt these trends successfully, particularly given a future that is largely unknown.

What This Means

Tech-enabled mobility is gaining wide acceptance. When respondents were asked about the likelihood of their firms implementing the progressive work and workplace strategies highlighted in our exhibit, technology and out-of-office mobility topped the list, followed by in-office mobility and reduced paper. Importantly, all of these strategies are reliant on effective mobile work and tools as well as organizational policies that encourage flexibility and anywhere-working. Currently these strategies appear focused on attorneys—mobility for non-legal staff ranks lower in likelihood.

Adoption of open environments is tentative. While firms appear focused on increasing choice and mobility, the parallel adoption of more open-plan environments that often comes alongside these shifts is slower to be embraced. While early adopters exist, mostly in the UK, US firms have been more likely to seek efficiency via interior and/or smaller attorney offices, and multi-use spaces.

Talent and workforce shifts are top-of-mind. Generational and talent issues ranked among the top trends impacting the legal business. This focus on talent, alongside the recognized importance of technology, may explain legal firms’ interest in mobility and technology, and their tentative approach to adopting more open or shared workplace environments.

Flexibility is the first line of defense against uncertainty. With an uncertain future ahead, our respondents noted the importance of keeping the workplace flexible to accommodate change. Three out of four respondents ranked the ability to reconfigure their workplace easily and quickly as important, and the importance appears to be even more paramount for larger firms. These strategies are all the more important as firms seek to carry less inventory, opting to manage staff fluctuations by reconfiguring furniture and density levels instead of allowing space to stay empty while waiting for future occupants.

What’s Next?

Respondents noted significant openness to change, underscoring that dramatic shifts will continue in the legal workplace. Our findings suggest that as law firms increasingly embrace alternative workplace strategies, their focus will be on those that help them maximize space efficiency while also improving the workplace experience. Building in flexibility from the start is a key example, and allows today’s work environments to adapt to and support future needs while ensuring firms get the most out of their real estate investments.

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Marilyn Archer, Christine Barber, Angela Bachetti, Todd Baisch, Matt Boyko, Tim Bromiley, Macaulay Campbell, McKenzi Cohen Cindy Coleman, Barbara Dunn, Farrah Elamir, Kathleen Friedle, Jennifer Gebhardt, Franz Gerhke, Eric Ginsburg, Francisco Gonzalez, James Hatley, Brenden Jackson, Matt Jackson, Nancy Kendall, Michael Machnic, Steve Martin, Eileen Moore, Nuno Moreira, Dana Nalbantian, Mina Noorbakhsh, Steffany Orjuela, Michael Otchie, Wanda Pan, Tim Pittman, Lauren Popish, Carlos Posada, Nadia Powell, Jim Prendergast, Nestor Santa-Cruz, Monica Schaffer, Lanna Semel, Erin Sherman, Renny Shih, Colin Thompson, Kim Woo, Zheng Xiang, Amber Zilemba, Doug Zucker

Year Completed