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Will Lawyers Come Back to Buildings as Offices Shrink?

Posted May 12, 2021

Reopening Covid Safe

COVID-19 did more than popularize new phrases such as social distancing, universal masking and WFM (work from home). It’s not a stretch to say that COVID-19 revolutionized where attorneys work.

With the pandemic risk beginning to wane, some firms are returning full force to their existing offices, others are scaling back on space as lawyers take up a hoteling approach to in-office time and more than a few are continuing on their new-found virtual path. This breaking away from the long-held belief that attorneys required prestigious space in high rise buildings of note signals a major and, most probably, permanent shift in the legal market for commercial office space.

Just a decade ago, the average attorney office boasted square footage ranging from 1,000 to 1,200. Prior to COVID-19, national, regional and local law firms of all sizes were beginning to downsize their space requirements with most negotiating for less space, shorter terms and lower rates per square foot. Even as that figure began to drop over the years, 90% of firms continue to allocate, on average, more than 600 SF to each attorney office as recently as the first three months of 2020. Then, COVID-19 hit and fast-tracked this slow-moving trend as remote work took hold.

Change was swift, sweeping and dramatic. As a result, law firms scrambled to sublease space and reengineer remaining offices. Some firms have even embraced a universal office size, a major shift in legal space planning. For example, Hogan Lovells in Denver is migrating to a standard 165 SF office for all attorneys that includes 10 feet of exterior glass and a clear glass interior-facing wall.

Standardizing attorney offices may generate rent savings – depending on two factors: the size of the new universal office and the firm’s partner-to-associate ratio. For instance, moving a firm with 240 SF partner offices and 180 SF associate offices to a universal 140 SF office decreases the size of an average office by 50 SF per office, which can achieve significant financial savings.

Firms considering such a move would be wise to consult the proposed occupants of those offices before making the move, however. Managing partners and law firm administrators have learned from the COVID-19 experience that employee preference trumps cost savings in most cases. Take, for example, younger associates’ preferences. Their rich tech talents often lead to a preference for WFM arrangements, but their career aspirations often counter that. Younger associates, especially first-year attorneys, realize that not being in the office can be a detriment to face time with senior associates and partners.

Large offices, smaller offices and in some cases, no office at all

In New York State, attorneys practicing in New York while residing elsewhere must maintain a physical law office in the state.  (Currently, one in four members of the New York Bar reside or practice outside the state.) The legislature overturned the mandate this week, freeing up significant office space and complicating the lives of building owners and commercial leasing agents.

Closer to home, a global law firm has rejected the idea of commercial space all together. Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan, which employs 875 attorneys around the world, expanded into the Atlanta market and leapfrogged the office space decision by basing its Atlanta practice in the home of Debra Bernstein, a former partner at Alston & Bird.

As longer-term WFM arrangements have been proven, more firms may be encouraged to expand into new cities now that they no longer face the financial commitment of leasing office space. That strategic decision may do more to transform the legal landscape than even WFH did.

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