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6 Design Trends for the Legal Workplace

Law firms are adapting to hybrid work with offices designed to support new ways of communicating, collaborating and creating workplace culture.

Law firms differ from many professional organizations in their need for private offices to meet confidentiality with clients and write and review legal documents in quiet, focused environments. Yet the legal profession also is not immune to the challenges many industries are experiencing in adapting to hybrid work, attracting and retaining top talent and meeting calls for greater equity and inclusion in the workplace.

To examine these issues and more, HOK hosted a LinkedIn Live with design leaders from across our North American studios to learn how they assist their law firm clients in designing modern and responsive workplaces.

Below: Watch the entire discussion with moderator Sabret Flocos (Washington, D.C.) and panelists Caitlin Turner (Toronto), Amy English (Houston) and Cara MacArthur (Los Angeles). You also can skip below to read about six key trends identified in the discussion.

1. Single-Size Offices

While law firms continue to require private, individual offices for their attorneys, many law firms are shifting to same-size offices for partners and associates. Standard-size offices present law firms several advantages, including:

  • Making it easier to adapt the workplace for future changes, such as converting under-utilized offices into conference rooms and other shared amenities.
  • Reducing the overall square footage of the workplace.
  • Fostering a greater sense of equity, which is key for recruiting and retaining staff.

“With one-size officing, we are shrinking the ‘I’ space and returning it to more ‘we’ space,” said Caitlin Turner. “One-size offices allow you to optimize your floor plate and control real estate costs. You create a more high-performance office that supports people’s best work.”

Polsinelli’s Kansas City headquarters includes collaborative seating areas and sit-stand workstations. Multipurpose training rooms provide space for mock trials and case strategy.

2. Removing Paper and Admin Services

In the past, law firms required a large amount of space to store legal documents and house administrative staff. That, too, is changing as firms increasingly look to digitize documents and cut down on administrative services within the office.

“Technology is enabling us to free up space,” said Amy English. “Software now allows attorneys to perform certain admin tasks. We also are seeing more sharing of administrative services—from a 4 to 1 ratio in the past to around 7 to 1 today. At the same time, more admins are allowed to work remotely, which provides significant real estate savings, especially when coupled with reductions in paper storage.”

3. Flexibility and Amenities

Law offices are adapting to hybrid work with more multi-purpose shared spaces, which can be used for town hall meetings, team collaboration, solo work or client-facing events. These hospitality-inspired spaces share a few common attributes, said Cara MacArthur. They are welcoming, flexible and tech-enabled. Some law firms are even incorporating desk and office-sharing into their workplace strategy, which frees up additional space for shared amenities.

“Our clients want more collaborative space, whether it’s a café area or some other type of environment where people can come together and spend time face to face,” said MacArthur. “At the same time, they need to be well-designed, particularly if they’re client-facing. The client relationship is central to the success of the firm.”

White & Case’s Manhattan office features a dramatic staircase connecting the reception areas to amenities including a coffee bar, restaurant-style dining, a wellness center and a fitness facility.

4. Video Conferencing

Lawyers and their teams increasingly use video to connect with clients and colleagues. Many courts are continuing the practice (begun during the pandemic) of allowing some hearings to occur via video. But video spaces within the office need to be carefully planned and designed. They require great lighting and acoustics, clean backgrounds, and must be free from background noise and interruptions.

“Courts are very particular about what can be seen and heard in video meetings,” said Turner. “When we’re thinking about designing spaces for video, we need to think about sightlines, acoustics and the outcome you’re hoping to achieve from the meeting.”

5. Dark Wood is Out (Unless That’s You!)

Office design is an extension of brand messaging. And while some firms still prefer a more traditional look, many more are seeking a workplace that projects a future-forward image. These spaces often include interior glass walls, light-colored woods, clean sightlines and contemporary furnishings.

“There’s a level of professionalism that needs to be conveyed in law firm design, but that doesn’t mean it has to have the cherry-wood finishes and heavy furniture of your grandfather’s law firm,” said English. “By contrast, we’re designing spaces today with more natural light, cleaner finishes, less clutter and softer touches.”

Polsinelli’s Denver law office features generous hospitality-centered corridors with social spaces, work islands, coffee bars and conversation niches.

6. Wellness and DEI

Like professionals in other fields, today’s attorneys and paralegals want their offices to be more than just a place to work. The space needs to support their health and well-being and foster the workplace diversity, equity and inclusion they’ve come to expect.

Design can help accomplish these goals in a variety of ways. For example, many law firms are actively incorporating biophilic design (injecting daylight, plants and other natural elements) into their workplaces to help lower stress and improve well-being. Other firms offer their workplace amenities to nonprofits and community groups for use for meetings, fundraisers and other events.

“The pandemic forced law firms—like many professions—to reconsider their approach to wellness and mental well-being,” said MacArthur. We’re now seeing the response to that in the workplace with more on-site fitness centers, refueling stations and specialized spaces like prayer and mothering rooms. And in many ways, these wellness spaces also tie into DEI. They make for a healthier and more inclusive workplace.”

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