New York Law Firms Are Emerging From The Office Design Dark Ages
With their oversized corner offices and dark wood paneling, traditional law offices are about as far as possible from the airy open spaces and glass-lined corridors that define modern workplace design.
But more law firms are coming out of the dark ages, signing leases in new buildings or renovating existing spaces to create offices that are more attractive to potential employees and more productive to boot.
“Law firms have taken a proactive role toward their office designs in a trend that has already swept through many other industries,” Berdon principal Christopher Imperiale said. “This is part of a larger cultural shift that many law firms are undergoing to make sure that they remain competitive.”
Imperiale is a key member of Berdon’s law firm advisory practice, which runs two quarterly roundtables for the legal industry, one on Long Island and the other in New York City. During these meetings, managing partners and firm executives gather, share best practices and glean insights on running a successful business, discussing what works, what doesn't work and what has yet to be tried.
Two parallel geographic trends are developing, Imperiale said. In NYC, law firms are migrating toward smaller, newer office spaces in more prestigious neighborhoods and buildings. Meanwhile, law firms on Long Island are renovating in place, reconfiguring their spaces in order to remain competitive with their urban counterparts.
Office space comes at a premium in the five boroughs, and law firms that have the freedom to sign new leases are choosing to shrink their footprints, Imperiale said. But this downsizing doesn’t have to squeeze anybody out of the firm. Instead, firms are cutting down on spaces like file rooms — paper records have largely been moved to paperless data management systems — and server rooms, whose functionalities have been migrated into the cloud.
Huge corner offices are on their way out, too. A study done back in 2012 by the General Services Administration, the real estate arm of the federal government, found that law firms boasted the most office space per capita of any industry, with 335 SF dedicated to each employee. Partners’ offices might have held multiple desks, chairs and even full sofas.
But over the last decade, Imperiale said, many law firms have switched to a more equitable model, offering their senior members rows of glass-walled offices with more compact desks, shelves and chairs. Many associates will still work in a bullpen formation, but cubicles will typically be more compact and sleeker, Imperiale said, and small rooms for private conversations will abound.
Choosing smaller spaces frees up law firms to spend more per square foot. As such, many have been moving to highly amenitized buildings in trendy and transit-accessible areas such as Midtown West and Hudson Yards.
Milbank LLP, formerly known as Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy LLP, eliminated more than 100K SF when it moved from 28 Liberty St. to the brand-new tower at 55 Hudson Yards. Pillsbury Winthrop nearly cut its office space in half when it moved from 1540 Broadway to 31 West 52nd St. in 2018. While office rents were not reported as part of these moves, Imperiale said that it was clear that these firms would be paying significantly more per square foot for their new leases.
“The Milbank move was a significant one as it coincided with the firm’s name change and rebranding in an effort to become more modern,” Imperiale said.
On Long Island, law firms have less flexibility to change their addresses, so many choose to renew their leases and renovate in place, Imperiale said. These firms are tending to shrink the same spaces as the NYC firms — server rooms, law libraries — but because their footprints aren't changing, Imperiale said they have tended to update their amenities and finishes in order to attract new talent.
“It’s a competitive environment recruiting new attorneys,” Imperiale said. “If Long Island firms are going to attract top talent, they should consider adopting a New York City mindset. Making space as attractive as possible could be a differentiator.”
In business districts like RXR Plaza in Uniondale, New York, Imperiale said firms have been typically signing lease extensions of seven to 10 years at $30 to $35 per SF and are also receiving significant landlord contributions to renovate their spaces.
Firms across New York are continuing to experiment with remote work policies. Letting employees spend a few days a week working from home can reduce a firm’s real estate footprint even further, and can be a strong draw for young attorneys who prefer to get their work done without the hassle of a long commute.
While their larger counterparts in NYC may have fully fledged operations departments, Imperiale said, Long Island law firms tend to be smaller and may not have the same in-house resources to efficiently run their businesses. For these firms, an outsourced adviser like Berdon can be an invaluable source of information, advice and data so that they can remain competitive and grow.
“It’s not just the traditional audit and tax work,” Imperiale said. “It’s consulting on more complex matters like how to structure a lease and developing a firm's partner compensation model.”
This feature was produced in collaboration between Bisnow Branded Content and Berdon. Bisnow news staff was not involved in the production of this content.