Guest Post by Monika Avery, NCIDQ, IIDA, LEED AP BD + C, Principal and Interior Designer for The S/L/A/M Collaborative (SLAM)

Designing the legal workplace has just become more interesting! Our attorney clients are realizing that it no longer makes sense to hold onto conventional workplace ideas. Shifts in law firm demographics, rising real estate costs in major markets, as well as the competition for new generation talent are bellwethers that leveraging a thoughtfully designed workplace and innovative design strategies will lead to operational efficiency as well as a better workplace and client experience.

In Hartford, Conn., SLAM client, Murtha Cullina, LLP reflected on all that and insight into multi-generational preferences and priorities, coupled with trends facing today’s leading-edge law firm design that relate directly to the many changes in the practice itself. The upshot?  A modern, efficient, technology advanced downtown office designed to meet these challenges and opportunities. 

It’s an exciting time for me and our in-house partner, SLAM Construction Services.  I thrive on workplace transformation design – its process, progress, and opportunities and am eager to join Murtha Cullina in tackling the biggest space transformation in the legal workplace today – the single-size office. This has been a no brainer for the professional services industry for the last decade. But for lawyers, well, it’s been a bit different, more emotional.

The private office in a law firm is an inner sanctum for attorney and client, a place of pride, tenure, and achievement. Size and location have always mattered. The large corner offices for seasoned partners, the smaller offices for newer partners, smaller still, with lesser views, for associates. This has been an inflexible approach which perpetuated inconvenient access to staff as well as isolation due to size and location assignment to title. The change to a single standard footprint, ranging from 100-150 square feet, shows a novel democratic approach to space regardless of title or tenure between levels of partners and associates. 

In defense of those attorneys less eager to let go of the “traditional” office size, the design of a law firm office is not as typical as one might think. It exists in a spectrum of firm sizes, locations, practice methods, processes, work styles, and protocols. As an interior designer, my solutions are holistic and integrated according to each fraction of that spectrum, delivered through a palette of spaces, curated to support each firm’s unique culture, clientele, market, and brand. 

When well devised, the physical space, which contributes to the firm’s identity, can have a significant impact on client impressions and employee satisfaction. Integration of the firm’s desired identity manifests itself in the workplace design and optimizes the experience. The design can drive perceptions and behaviors of the occupants as well as the clients.

One of the main transformations of the law office space is the increase in transparency which alters the behaviors found in traditional, formal settings.  More transparency helps to build a more inclusive work environment and facilitate knowledge sharing and knowledge transfer. Elements such as glass-fronted offices and conference rooms, casual open meeting spaces, cafes, and team areas help foster a transparent culture.

For Murtha Cullina, the new office design includes a standard 150-square-foot office for all attorneys – partners and associates – and transparent design elements throughout including glass fronts with visual access into each private office and meeting room, and a destination café spot designed to be an alternate place to work. The overarching design concept for the space is a transition into styled modern elegance with edgy touches. Simplicity, wonder, and drama upon entry in the elevator lobby. Beyond, a largely tone on tone, warm palette with occasional bold contrasts. Elegant and sophisticated in its simplicity, functionality, and tailored detail.  A palette of typical spaces and signature destinations that are stately modern, contemporary, interpretive of formal tradition, yet bespoke.

Our client’s decision to reduce and standardize the new office space, prompts the addition of alternative work settings to provide choice and flexibility, which in turn, will contribute to the desired transparency and inspired culture.

These unexpected spaces affect collaboration opportunities as well as an attorney’s choice for heads down work. Casual, open or semi-enclosed areas facilitate chance encounters or scheduled smaller work groups. Open plan concepts have been adapted by a few progressive law firms, mainly in the UK, with some case studies in Australia and New York City. I have to emphasize that these early adopters are rain makers when it comes to the legal workplace innovation and lead to my next point.

Renderings by Meghan Mendes

The future of the legal profession must be considered in the office design. Some sources indicate that there may be a shortage of young talent entering the legal industry, with other industries competing over the same talent. Choice, transparency, experience, and technology are part of the future proofing agenda of modern law firms that are trying to appeal to a new generation of attorneys.

Influenced by the ease of co-working environments which offer a sense of inspiration, opportunity, and accessibility to peers and the community at large, this generation is also comfortable with the “next shift.” Formal remote-working programs being implemented by some firms that are leveraging technology to make telecommuting possible and provide significant benefits to the individuals without sacrificing the quality of service.

As the design for Murtha Cullina’s office is implemented, the former office will slowly recede from their memory.  Awaiting them is a new space that will prove to be modern in its aesthetic, a more flexible and transparent environment to foster new traditions rooted in a single size office standard for all.

Monika Avery is a principal and interior designer for The S/L/A/M Collaborative (SLAM), based in Orlando, Fla.