Understanding the economic and societal impact of office space in law firms is critical to satisfying the needs of human resources within your own law firm, and also helps to identify the hierarchy when you walk into any law firm for the first time. Office space is a reward, incentive, and status declaration, all at the same time. And this is more true in a law firm than most other businesses today.
A part of this highly stratified and compartmentalized office space structuring in law firms occurs from the nature of the law firm business itself, and the overwhelming professional need of confidentiality and isolated contemplation. But another part flows from rigidly established norms that define office spaces according to the hierarchical priority of the person. And it's not only the size of allotted space that defines status within a law firm, but location, amenities, furnishings, view, all go into deciding the worth of an office space in attributing status upon its occupant.
The distribution of office space within a law firm according to nature of practice
A research done by Knoll Inc. in 2009 titled Emerging Law Firm Practice found that in office space allocation and distribution, ideally:
- Corporate lawyers or attorneys dealing in corporate matters need about 650 sq ft per attorney
- Litigation lawyers of attorneys in litigation need about 750 sq ft per attorney, and
- Heavy litigation lawyers or attorneys need about 1,000 sq ft per attorney
Research found that corporate lawyers, typically, required less full-time support services and staff than those in heavy litigation. In addition, those in heavy litigation required more file drawers and storage space per attorney.
Office space, status, and the need of privacy in a law firm
Privacy in law firms is valued both as a barrier to outside distractions and as a mark of status. Modern law firms are trying to respond to this combination by allocating universal office sizes but changing the amenities and location according to rank. While a partner may enjoy the same size office space as an associate, the partner would be allowed personalized furniture, or may be a window with a better view. For big firms that have more partners and not enough common office spaces, corners of working areas are usually turned into common meeting areas while the window line and views are given to private offices.
The conflict between status and need in office space allocation within a law firm
The research made by Knoll in office spaces mentions an interesting anecdote: “In evaluating the needs of legal secretaries, a 30-year veteran said, “Honey, if you are giving me a transaction counter, you do not know what I need.””
Though legal secretaries may be at the bottom of the law-firm hierarchy, their service is as much important to work processes within the law firm as that of anyone else. Legal secretaries tucked away into corners complain that much of their time is simply wasted on trying to grab the attention of lawyers, sometimes for a simple thing as a signature. Though the legal secretary is considered at the bottom of the law firm hierarchy, an understanding of work processes finds that within a law firm, legal secretaries or assistants actually run the workflow command centers with a better overview of what is happening and of the priorities and schedules.
Changes are happening in allocation of law firm space, though in minor ways
Modern office space theories are slowly being integrated into law firms. Modern law firms are becoming aware of the need of optimizing the use of office space in a manner that increases law firm productivity. Modern firms are also waking up to the needs of human bonding and the need to create firm-wide work cultures which are quite often in conflict with privacy needs. In its research Knoll found that not only are law firms striving to increase employee interaction, but one law firm had actually created a system where employees enter the firm through a cafe, thus ensuring a common point of interaction every day.
Things have changed and opened up to a great extent in recent years, law firms, which tend to be ‘traditional' businesses, still maintain a distribution and allocation of office space according to maxims more based on status than on needs. In a modern corporate office, it is not unlikely to find workers from all levels of hierarchy sharing common open/semi-open spaces, in a law firm, such situations where a managing partner shares common space with associates is still unthinkable.