Law Firms’ Resistance to Open Floor Plans

Real estate represents the second highest expense for law firms, following salaries. While an increasing number of industries have been adopting open-floor plans to mitigate this cost, law firms have conspicuously abstained.

“Cubicles Rise in a Brave New World of Publishing,” a New York Times article profiling publishing house Hachette’s move to an open floor plan, called out law firms for their tenacious hold on traditional offices and gave some compelling reasons for it.

“Even as the walls of America’s workplaces continue to come crashing down, leaving only a handful of holdouts — like corporate law firms — a number of recent studies have been critical of the effects of open-plan offices on both the productivity and happiness of cube dwellers.”

Editors, the article claims, see themselves more as “men and women of letters than they do as businesspeople.” Most publishing houses are nervous about the clash between the aesthetic of open-floor plans and this sense of intellectual labor, and law firms are no different.

A recently released report by Jones Lang LaSalle states

“U.S. law firms on the whole remain somewhat hesitant to fully adapt to more contemporary, open-office plans compared to their global counterparts and other professional- and business-service industries. For instance, U.S. firms require more ‘we’ than ‘we’ space compared to other industries domestically as they spend more time on research and writing that requires personal space.”

The report also cites the particularly high partner-to-associate ration of U.S. law firms compared to Europe and Asia.

The report also claims, “Despite some hesitation, even American firms are demonstrating preferences for shared open-plan areas, interior glass-fronted offices, multipurpose collaborative space and lawyer lounges.”

Notwithstanding law firms’ general reluctance to change traditional layouts, more may start adopting such measures in the future, especially if they want to their keep prime real estate locations (law firms take up over a tenth of Manhattan’s prime real estate, JLL reports). Just as law schools have found themselves having to adapt curricula to account for technology’s role in modern law practice, so law firms may start having to change their approach to office design. Forward-looking law firms are relying more on technologies like Microsoft’s Lync (soon-to-be-called “Skype for Business”) and virtualized desktops for more fluid and less expensive office arrangements.

Among firms that have taken an innovative approach is Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, which moved to such a space in 2010. Rather than “‘me’ space,” the space prioritizes “community,” “collaboration,” and state-of the-art teleconferencing technology.