Law firms value more modern design with shared spaces

Wood-panel look of law offices shifts to wide open spaces

August 8, 2012 By Getahn Ward

The stiff, stodgy decor of law offices has shifted to a more modern design filled with the latest technology.

Inside the digs of several major Nashville law firms, dark wood panels, oriental rugs, chandeliers and leather-bound books have given way to brighter finishes, more light and glass windows rather than walls.

In some cases, the average size of an individual lawyer’s office has shrunk as firms shift away from a hierarchical system that gave the biggest, most-coveted offices to those highest on the legal food chain. Now, firms try to save space, by reducing average office size and using what’s left over to create more meeting and collaboration rooms for lawyers and clients.

It’s all part of a push to increase productivity, appeal to younger lawyers and adjust to new technology. The growing number of tech-savvy younger law partners is a driver.

“They want to be more efficient and have more balance of quality time with their families,” said Cindy Sorci, principal with Sorci & Swords Design Inc. “That’s a different mindset than it used to be 30 years ago. The traditional lawyer spent the majority of his time at the office and came home on Christmas Day.”

In Nashville, some law firms have adopted fresh design features as they move to sleek new buildings, including the Pinnacle at Symphony Place skyscraper south of Broadway. Other firms have remodeled at existing locations.

Bradley Arant Boult Cummings was a pioneer in the trend when it signed up to anchor Roundabout Plaza near Music Row nine years ago. The firm sought a floor plan that used space more efficiently and encouraged interaction among lawyers too dependent on email, recalled Bob Patterson, managing partner of the Nashville office.

Average square footage per lawyer is 700 square feet, down 15 percent from the allocation at a former office at Bank of America Plaza. Space required for secretaries has shrunk along with their numbers, but more room is dedicated to equipment and information technology staff to support the attorneys.

Technology allows lawyers to produce more of their own documents, a factor in the shift to one secretary for up to four attorneys. Law firms are giving attorneys digital access to paper files, saving space once used for large, centralized libraries. The libraries, however, haven’t gone away altogether.

“We’re trying very hard to get to paperless — eventually hoping our central filing becomes something else,” said Mekesha Montgomery, the member-in-charge of the Nashville office of Frost Brown Todd LLC. “But we’re not there yet.”

Three months ago, Frost Brown Todd joined Bass, Berry & Sims, Sherrard & Roe and Gullett Sanford Robinson & Martin as law firm tenants at the Pinnacle building. That’s one of Nashville’s priciest addresses, but the firms say the building’s column-free floor plates — plus other features that allow for more efficiency and environmentally friendly features — compensate for higher rents.

Fresh air

“It’s just a breath of fresh air because the offices are so pretty and the views are so beautiful,” said Leigh Walton, an attorney at Bass Berry, who through the large glass window of her office has watched the Music City Center convention hall take shape.

Technology upgrades have improved work flow, allowing Walton and other lawyers to work with colleagues at Bass Berry’s other offices (or from home) as if they were in the office.

“We’re much less paperbound and much faster,” Walton said. “Information flows immediately, whereas in the early days of law practice, the pace was slower.”

In some ways, law firms are catching up with corporate America, which in the 1990s moved toward more flexible, open, shared space, said Jack Weber, a design principal and workspace strategist with design firm Gresham Smith and Partners. Other firms, meanwhile, see opportunities to take some square footage that would’ve otherwise been used for individual offices for lawyers or for libraries to create more rooms for collaboration, said David Johnston, managing principal with STG Design in Nashville. “They’re realizing the benefit of those interactive spaces because that’s where business happens,” Johnston said.