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“An appropriate balance and range of focused and collaborative work spaces will be the trend” in law firm décor, says Julia Simit, Co-Managing Director of Gensler, an architectural firm in Manhattan. That means that as law firms remodel their work environments, the profession will increasingly utilize open work spaces to allow attorneys increased mobility and flexibility designed for collaborative interactions.

“Younger lawyers are more likely to want the flexibility of being mobile in their office, taking cues from tech companies that have proven results with office spaces that provide flexibility, collaboration and amenities,” says Simit. She also notes that just like with most professions, lawyers are being asked to work faster. That is forcing attorneys to crave the ability to be more mobile and adaptable to their client’s needs.

One Firm Making a Big Move to Smaller, But More Interactive Digs

When Paul Hastings, LLC relocates its Manhattan offices from one building to another early next year, not only will their physical space shrink from 240,000 to 180,000 square feet, the new space will offer a reimagined design to maximize efficiency and collaboration.

In an article in Law360, the law firm’s managing partner was quoted as saying Paul Hastings is modernizing its work space to complement how today’s lawyer gets their work done. Innovations to be featured in the firm’s new digs include larger collaborative areas, meeting spaces with updated technology and so-called quiet cars where lawyers can toil in a quiet environment.

The firm is retooling its work space in response to the evolving desires of its younger associates who grew up with technology as their playground. Rather than enjoying an enclosed office with a door, newer lawyers favor work spaces with the latest tech tools that allow for mobility and collaboration.

Are Open Work Spaces Right for Every Law Firm Environment?

According to Thomas Sager, who recently retired as General Counsel for DuPont and is now a partner with Ballard Spahr LLC, it’s not just law firms that are reconfiguring their work spaces to maximize team member interaction. “Corporations have been moving in that direction for a number of years,” Sager says.

He cites pros and cons of open, collaborative workspaces. Benefits include a reduction in overhead costs and a nod to the desires of younger associates to collaborate and interact. In addition, says Sager, “Millennials constantly preach the refrain we don’t need to be in the office 12 hours a day.” Open work spaces are a direct response as they reduce the significance on the traditional office setting, he says.

Conversely, traditional arguments against an open workspace for a law firm include concerns about confidentiality with clients and the potential loss of privilege. However, those considerations “can be effectively managed with proper office layouts,” Sager says. That means that in addition to fluid work areas for lawyers, a suitable law firm layout should include sufficient conference rooms for client interaction and conference calls.

Another variable on law firm layout is its impact on the firm’s reputation, Sager says. “In recruiting top talent, does this movement tarnish the firm’s reputation by the becoming the ‘box store’ law firm of the legal industry?” he poses.

Angela Bonfante, an interior designer and decorator in Columbus, isn’t a fan of the open concept for law firms. “It’s really progressive but I think it will impede productivity because there is more noise and no privacy. You feel like you are being watched,” says the award-winning designer, who has worked extensively in both residential and office settings. She notes that some people require quiet to get their work done, so the cacophony of movement and sounds prevalent in an open work area could be detrimental to their success.

While open work environments allow law firms to utilize less physical space than permanent offices do, Bonfante is still concerned about whether saving money at the risk of reducing productivity is a wise investment. While newer lawyers “might be more used to collaborative environments, law is a profession that often demands great contemplation. While noise cancelling headphones might be useful,” they might not be the answer, she says.

She likens lawyers working in an open environment to “a patient meeting their doctor in the middle of the waiting room.” If a law firm, or any type of professional office is considering open work environments, Bonfante says there is at least one amenity that should not be overlooked. “People need natural light,” she says, so she advises law firms to locate the open spaces near windows or to at least invest in appropriate lighting.

Tami Kamin Meyer is an Ohio attorney and writer.

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