Fried Frank — Washington, D.C.
A person sitting in a chair.

Will the legal office adapt to new working realities?

Research Project Name

Trends in the Legal Workplace

What We Did

In addition to background research and the identification of case study examples, we convened decision-makers from top international law firms and presenters from legal and technology consulting firms to discuss the trends and issues facing the legal profession. Our goal was to open up new conversations about the future of a design model that has changed only incrementally for decades, and to arrive at a conceptual design of future law firm work environments, as well as an understanding of how to implement them.

The Context

Current law firm design is based on a model that has been around for almost 100 years. The allocation of space comes from a mentality that legal work is individual and that the private office is a symbol of status and success. Yet legal work and legal culture are changing rapidly. New economic realities, new technologies and ways of working, global talent, and client pressures are colliding with a new suite of expectations and work styles from young attorneys.

Law firms are now part of a value-based economy and need to reinvent how they operate and how they use space. Power has shifted to the buyers of law firm services, driving changes in the way that firms bill for their time, prompting alternative billing models. A shift in thinking and a new approach to space and talent are required for the legal workplace to remain nimble and respond to an uncertain future. Some leaders are ready for this change, but few seem willing to be the first to venture into a new model for the workplace.

The Results

Cost continues to be an issue for law firms as they face mounting competition and clients who increasingly distinguish high-value legal work from commodity work. This focus on the bottom line means that firms continue to look to real estate and the workplace for efficiencies and savings. New ways of working are, however, changing the way firms support and recruit their attorneys: Firms reported an increasing focus on legal teams, an interest in quality-of-life concerns, and the creation of multiple attorney career tracks.

Attorneys are increasingly mobile, and even for those in the office, instances of virtual collaboration have increased dramatically in recent years. Along with this mobility, firms continue to spread geographically, both into second-tier cities and into new global markets. Some second-tier offices are beginning to house attorneys alongside support staff. In light of these changes, roundtable participants reported actively seeking innovative workplace strategies while acknowledging an ingrained resistance to change.

What This Means

For many law firms, the private office still isn’t going anywhere. Instead, it’s evolving to hold reconfigurable furniture and integrated technology that accommodates in-person and virtual collaboration, not just individual work. Open plans still have their place, but will be confined to smaller zones.

A new look at collaboration zones means a wider, more purposeful suite of spaces. Some areas should be more casual and incorporate refreshments to support chance encounters; others should provide better space for smaller groups and virtual work.

The global spread of firms is creating hierarchies in office design and investment. Big city/“showcase” locations will continue to get the bulk of investment dollars for client-facing spaces. “Working” offices in secondary markets will focus more on functionality than grandeur and will increasingly house attorneys, not just support staff.

For lawyers, mobility is about options, not giving up their desks. Attorneys want to work from anywhere and be connected at all times, and offices will have to accommodate more visitors—but it’s not time for free-address seating just yet.

What’s Next?

We continue to develop both the drivers of change and our concepts and designs for the future legal workplace. Key issues include balancing individual entitlement with team-based work; tracking technology shifts and changes in legal workflow; the promotion of social capital through both physical and virtual connections; and an emerging focus on health and wellness. We see a number of potential benefits to law firms as they implement new workplace strategies, including operational cost reduction; the facilitation of cultural shifts toward connectedness and community; continuous improvement of work processes; better integration and use of new technologies; and a continued emphasis on retention and training of the next generation of attorneys.

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Marilyn Archer, Barbara Dunn, Steve Martin, Julia Simet, Doug Zucker

Year Completed