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Redesigning the Legal Office Space

This Legal Problem Solving post is by Noah Zimmerman, Vanderbilt Law School Class of 2019.

Wait… What?! I have to share an office? While unfathomable for most other people starting a career, entry-level lawyers go into their first job with an expectation of their own office. Although nice in theory, there are drawbacks with having a space that is all your own. Being a lawyer requires long hours of absolute focus. Solitude is not always the optimal solution.

LET THERE BE LIGHT

Depression is very real for attorneys. In fact, attorneys are 3.6 times more likely to suffer from depression than those with other jobs. The job can often feel lonely due to the need for quiet effectively research and write. Working eighty hours a week in a cramped office by yourself can have drastic health effects. In a highly collaborative profession, why are people stuffed in dark offices?

As the ABA Journal explained, adding glass and allowing natural lighting can significantly improve the mood in the office. People are more lively, collaboration is easier, and the lighting helps the interior offices seem less stuffy. There are also people who believe that allowing natural light into an office improves the relationship between superiors and subordinates to allow for more mentorship. Light seems to have the ability to bring out the best in people.

Windows and skylights are very helpful, but they are not foolproof solutions. While it rains very rarely in Los Angeles, the office I worked at this summer was often covered by morning fog until the afternoon. It would be hard to imagine the office being any brighter when it is almost always overcast. I also imagine offices in cities like New York would have a tough time getting unobstructed light due to the closeness of other buildings.

MY HOUSE, MY RULES

So the employees are happy, but what about if you are the employer? In case you forgot, there was a big recession a little over 10 years ago. Even though our economy has improved greatly since then, according to Above the Law, demand for legal services in big law has been relatively stagnant post recession. Firms can only raise rates so much. If the demand is just not there, firms can redesign their offices to cut costs.

Nixon Peabody, a large law firm, has shown what proper planning and thought can accomplish with their new office. Even though the number of attorneys in their firm has increased since the time they built their previous office, they were able to make their new office feel more roomy, while using 33% less space than before. It is a win-win for employers and employees. The less space you lease, the cheaper it will be (assuming all else equal). The more open the office is, the more happy the employee is.

Many lawyers talk about disliking the facetime requirements at their firms. Junior associates are often expected to arrive before the partners arrive, and leave after the partners have left. Facetime requirements seem archaic in the 21st century. While slow to move, some firms have begun to shift over into allowing attorneys to work from home. As offices have gone more mobile, firms have been able to benefit from moving to second-tier cities with cheaper rent.

TELL ME ABOUT THE DRAWBACKS

In 2014, the Washington Post had an article entitled, Google got it wrong. The open-office trend is destroying the workplace.” The article cited a study that found that workers in open-office setting were dissatisfied about transitioning into an open office environment due to the lack of visual privacy and auditory distractions. As someone who is easily distracted, I could see myself focusing on everybody else in the office instead of on my own work.

There is also the gross reality that open offices cause the faster spread of germs. From my experience working with lawyers, they are very careful about getting sick. With billable requirements, getting sick means either working through the illness, or having to make up the hours when you are feeling better. It is hard to hide from a sneeze when sharing an office. While there are many preventive measures, there will always be tradeoffs with new designs.

Lastly, working remotely can lead to lack of communication. Within the last year, IBM has brought a lot of their remote workers back into the office due to a breakdown in communication and ideation. Workers were much more efficient when they were working in the office in small groups. It appears that a lot of problems of a private office spill over into the remote workspace.

TYING IT ALL TOGETHER

As law firms slowly begin to transition into new offices as their old leases run out, they face a tough decision. They have to decide whether to continue the traditional model, or follow the lead of tech companies in embracing a change in design. The modern office space is built based on human productivity and well being. It seems foolish to dismiss the science behind these new office spaces and continue with the norm for tradition sake. Let’s be honest, who needs a library.

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