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Law Office Design

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Doug Zucker

Doug Zucker

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Today’s law firm environment is rapidly changing. Facilities, and the workplace in general, are constantly transitioning to support the business realities of the next millennium. Most successful law firms are implementing strategies that improve today’s work environment while anticipating the challenges of the future. Flexibility is the watchword.

Up to now, law firms have been focused on efficiency—doing more for less. We believe that, in the future, we will need to focus on effectiveness—getting the job done better, re-thinking the problem. Our job in design is to completely understand how the lawyers work, and to internalize a specific law firm’s culture and goals for the project.

Often, improving the bottom line is the primary goal, and that is most effectively handled by understanding the specifics of how a firm works, how paper moves through an organization, what is important in recruiting, and by paying special attention to the rainmakers. Smaller partner offices, for example, often have very little impact on occupancy costs, and quite a negative impact on a lot of attorneys’ daily life. It is interesting that many of the most profitable firms in San Francisco have been among the least efficient from a square footage-per-attorney point of view. In our investigations into the Law Firm of the Future, we are taking a more all-encompassing approach in order to understand how to make each firm the most efficient, and more importantly, the most effective that it can be.

In our recent work masterplanning large law firms in San Francisco (McCutchen, Brobeck, Heller, Graham & James), we have targeted efficiencies in the 635-767 rentable square feet per attorney range.

Our approaches to dealing with flexibility and effectiveness, of course, vary, and are tailored specifically to the culture of each firm. We have found that many law firms which were planned to be very efficient in the 80’s are not actually being occupied in that way.

Representative List of Approaches

A. Building-Related Issues

  1. Select the right building footprint to match the law firm program
  2. Investigate larger, lower floors for support functions
  3. Off-site firmwide and large litigation functions to a less expensive location
  4. Analyze design issues with lease agreement in mind (cost, duration, furniture and demountable construction systems).
  5. Match hours of use with lease terms, most law firms do not adequately evaluate their operating costs when negotiating a new lease with new operating costs
  6. Evaluate rentable to leasable s.f. and negotiate on that basis

B. Attorney Offices (this represents approximately 1/3 of space utilization)

  1. Smaller offices for first year associates/senior paralegals
  2. Smaller associate offices with built-in furniture
  3. Smaller partner offices with workwalls
  4. Smaller partner offices with adjacent, conveniently located, shared conference rooms
  5. Investigate same size attorney offices (one size fits all)
  6. Retired partners suite
  7. Hotelling for branch offices/visitor offices

C. Support Space

  1. Central point of reception
  2. Conference center
  3. Compact storage
  4. Increased secretarial ratios
  5. Reduced library—greater reliance on electronic media
  6. Reduced records—better tracking, deadfiling
  7. Document imaging
  8. Outsourcing services
  9. Attorney/secretary/voice mail roll-over sequence on telephones
  10. Today’s information technology (i.e. faxing from computers, etc.)
  11. Large, flexible, divisible multi-purpose conference room

We at Gensler are continuously exploring new ways of thinking, new ways of working and new ways of collaborating. Several approaches that have worked well for us in the past are:

  1. Interviews of Key Personnel: determine what are the right questions to ask
  2. Retreat/Planning Seminar: involve practice group heads & key consensus builders in a collaborative worksession
  3. Super-Chart Banner System: our own unique system to identify and focus on the issues in an interactive way
  4. Computer Models: convey ideas without the expense of building them
  5. Mock-ups: kick the tires, test concepts, work with them and modify them before construction

Our goal is to help you avoid re-inventing any wheels. We know that a willingness to think outside the box will lead to higher quality results in far less time. We believe that only by focusing our time on understanding how a specific firm works will we jointly arrive at a unique and innovative approach to the design of your space.

Organizational Structure

The organizational structure of a law firm differs from that of a corporation. Because it is a partnership, influence and decision-making are typically dispersed among a larger group of individuals. These complexities make the planning and design of the law office environment both a challenge and an opportunity. The challenge frequently becomes to satisfy the firm in general and the individual specifically. But there are also opportunities to solidify or modify the firm’s “culture” or image and to develop efficient operational methods.

The partnership must grapple with many new issues that have a direct impact on the planning and design of its offices. What systems are needed in office technology to streamline operations in order to remain competitive? How do you accommodate specialized practice groups and support functions—each with different needs—in a single office facility? As one opens regional offices, should you standardize these facilities or develop each one individually?


Programming is the first phase of design, whose goal is to translate overall building ideas into design criteria. Relationships are documented and specific space requirements are collected to assist designers throughout the design process. The program is a written description of both quantitative and qualitative information that the designer uses to develop spatial concepts and plans. A design program documents personnel, support space and amenity requirements, specific functional adjacencies based on operational work flow and communication patterns, security, automation and other special requirements, as well as image and quality level.

Programming occurs at various stages of design and as such, a program is truly a “living document.” A program will grow and change and shift its focus. Schematic design programming focuses on requirements at the department or practice group level. Design development programming delves into greater detail, such as office and secretarial workstation design and includes specific equipment and furniture requirements.

Space Planning

The key to a successful project is a strong, unified conceptual framework. This is first translated in physical form through the vehicle of a conceptual space plan. The concept plan is a diagram of the image, functional and business goals of a project. It is the framework upon which we as architects build by adding increasingly detailed layers of information.

Communication with the client and user groups is a critical element of our space planning strategy. This communication is affected in two ways, interviews and meetings. Personal interviews with designated users are conducted to the extent necessary to confirm parameters for planning and design. We also recommend setting up a regular meeting schedule with the client’s decision-making committee. Typically, an executive session is conducted to establish overriding financial goals, image goals, planning standards, operational enhancements, technology guidelines, expansion or contraction concerns, amenities and accessibility. Administrative sessions are held to more specifically define the requirements of all areas and incorporate the needs into an overall summary report.

Selecting an Architect

The critical factor when selecting the architectural firm that will design your new office is proven, specific experience in law office design. Designing these work environments involves addressing design issues—function adjacencies, image, etc.—that are unique to the legal profession. The design firm you choose must know the concerns confronting a law firm of today, whatever its size or scope. The designers must comprehend both the established legal traditions and the current trends that are affecting the evolving business of practicing law.

During the past three decades, Gensler has earned the reputation of both setting and maintaining the standard of excellence and efficiency in law office design. We have the distinction of working with the most respected law firms, groups that are large and nationally known, as well as those determined to maintain the benefits of a smaller organization.

Gensler has designed over 20 million square feet of space specifically for law offices, and in the last 11 years, our work has been honored by the American Bar Association each year for law office design. According to a recent The American Lawyer list of the 100 largest law firms, 38 of the top 100 are Gensler clients. And, according to National Law Journal’s list of 250 largest law firms, eight of the top 10, 18 of the top 25 and 75 of the top 250 are Gensler clients.


About the Author

Doug Zucker

Douglas Zucker, AIA IIDA LEED AP is an architect, a Principal at Gensler, and a regional leader of its legal practice area. Gensler is a global architectural firm specializing in the design of the legal environment. Doug has been the recipient of numerous awards for his legal design work, and is a frequent speaker and writer on the design of law firms. He has spoken at many national and international conferences including the ALA.

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