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Law Firm Space Grows More Democratized: Q&A with Wright Heerema

As the law firm has evolved from its traditional operating model, the changes in how firms use their office space have reflected this. For an illustration of how these changes translate into office design, we tapped into the insights of one of Chicago’s leading interior design shops, Wright Heerema Architects. Here, the firm’s Scott Delano, Mel Chotiner and Samantha Shenk discuss Wright Heerema’s experience with designing Gould & Ratner’s new space at 222 N. LaSalle, along with more general trends.

Q: How is law office design changing as new generations enter the workforce?

Scott Delano, Mel Chotiner and Samantha Shenk: New generations and new technologies alike are democratizing space within law firms – and making it a lot more comfortable for all who work there. The rapid pace of technological innovation and ever-increasing connectivity demands are driving some of the biggest changes in law office design; it’s as much the technology as it is the new generations.
Shared spaces are not only tech-infused, but also include furniture and movable walls that mean one space can be a boardroom by day, an entertaining or networking space by night—or a case room when needed.

As Millennials earn their partnership stripes, many are seeking to be rewarded in other ways, rather than the proverbial corner office. As a result, office size is more equally distributed among the ranks, with natural light and amenities for all.

Q: What are specific office design details some law firms are implementing in Chicago?

Delano, Chotiner and Shenk: One office we designed recently comes with a kitchen that is keg-ready—not your grandfather’s law firm, to be sure. However, a more material trend is changing law firm spaces in a more significant way: the age of downsizing is over, replaced with a flight to quality.

For at least a decade ending in 2017, we were seeing law firms markedly downsize their space, realizing smaller footprints, in part, by digitizing files and significantly reducing or eliminating legal libraries. Today, most of those “digitization gains” have been realized.

When we designed the new space for Gould & Ratner, we replaced the “heaviness” of a traditional law office with access to natural light for the entire staff. Using grey and blue branded colors, internal offices with full-glass walls, and both a collaborative lounge area and cafe (yes, with a kegerator) that encourages further collaboration.

Q: What’s in store for the workplace of the future for law firms?

Delano, Chotiner and Shenk: Technology trends behind the scenes are beginning to influence the space itself. The legal environment is acutely aware of the impact of workforce trends and artificial intelligence (AI).

For example, as many paralegal tasks are replaced by AI, paralegals are being leveraged for more of their high-level tasks, and less for routine document preparation. Their role at the firm can be elevated in the process, and at the same time, they are offered improved office spaces, with more natural light.

Another trend: workers in law firm spaces are less and less likely to be employed by the firm full-time either by choice or changing demands of the profession. Law firms are utilizing more freelance and contract knowledge workers, and the spaces are reflecting this need for flexibility as ad-hoc team spaces.

Pictured: Scott Delano (at top), Mel Chotiner (above left) and Samantha Shenk (above right)

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About Paul Bubny

Paul Bubny serves as Senior Content Director for Connect Commercial Real Estate, a role to which he brings 13-plus years’ experience covering the commercial real estate industry and 30-plus years in business-to-business journalism. In this capacity, he oversees daily operations while also reporting on both local/regional markets and national trends, covering individual transactions across all property types, as well as delving into broader subject matter. He produces 15-20 daily news stories per day and works with the Connect team and clients to develop longer-form content, ranging from Q&As to thought-leadership pieces. Prior to joining Connect, Paul was Managing Editor for both Real Estate Forum and at American Lawyer Media, where he oversaw operations at both publications while also producing daily news and feature-length articles. His tenure in B2B publishing stretches back into the print era, and he has served as Editor in Chief on four national trade publications. Since 1999, Paul has volunteered as the newsletter editor of passenger rail advocacy groups (one national, one local).

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