Companies across the spectrum have looked to change up their office design and layout in a bid to get their workers back in the office. It’s a trend that we’ve continued to see over the past few years and will likely continue to see going forward, given how office occupancy trends have been slow to pick up. But despite the widespread changes, some industries have been slow to adapt. Law offices, which have traditionally been viewed as closed-off, formal places of business, are one of those industries. Lawyers are a very office-centric bunch; law firms have been one of the most reliable industries to lease space and have returned to the office faster than many others during the past few years. But even these office stalwarts are not immune to the changing office culture. As law firms renew spaces and open new offices, the look and feel of law office environments are evolving now as well.
At the law firm Venable’s new Manhattan office, company leaders looked to emulate the comforts of home. “We wanted finishes that made it feel more residential,” said Chris Borello, a partner at Venable, pointing to things like plantlife and bronze borders around windows. “Folks were coming from their living rooms where they worked during the pandemic, and we wanted that comfort level,” he said. Headquartered in Washington, D.C., Venable is a 120-year-old law practice that has offices in 10 other cities across the country.
The firm’s previous offices, at 1270 and 1290 Avenue of the Americas, had more of a traditional corporate office look, with a lot of opaque walls and small windows in a lot of offices. “It might as well have been 1977 in both offices, visually and psychologically,” said Matthew McLaughlin, partner-in-charge at Venable’s New York office. In many of the spaces they visited, when looking at new locations, it felt clinical, with a lot of marble, steel, and glass. They wanted to go in a different direction. “We had a notion of building a special place that had a homey feel, a richer feel,” said McLaughlin.
Legal services is a sector that has gotten back to in-person work faster than a lot of other industries. In August 2021, as workers slowly began returning to the office, occupancy rates at law firms rose to 56 percent compared to 34 percent among all other industries across the country, according to Kastle Systems. Law firms were also one of the top industries in 2021 in terms of leasing. Across the country, law firms leased more than 11.6 million square feet, second only to tech and banking, according to JLL.
Working in person is important in the legal world, though some workarounds like videoconferences with clients and using Zoom for legal hearings and appearances are still taking place today. Since law firms began returning to the office two years ago, many have rethought their offices to be more hospitality-centered, with more amenities, collaborative space, and natural light. “The pandemic forced law firms—like many professions—to reconsider their approach to wellness and mental well-being,” said architecture firm HOK’s Cara MacArthur.
In 2018, Venable completed a merger with the New York law firm Fitzpatrick, Cella, Harper & Scinto, doubling its staff of lawyers to more than 160. By early 2020, with leases approaching expiration for its two NYC offices, leaders at Venable began to plan for a new office that would consolidate both offices and mark a new chapter for the firm and its newly expanded staff. As the firm began looking at dozens of office buildings around the city, the world was edging toward the pandemic. “At the end of meetings, the brokers were bumping elbows instead of shaking hands,” recalled McLaughlin about the firm’s office search. The pandemic was just starting, and everything was put on hold until the beginning of 2021.
When they reapproached the new office search, now with a year of the pandemic behind them, Venable executives knew they wanted to make the new office a warm, welcoming place with amenities that would help draw people back. They also wanted to create an environment that would encourage interactions between the staff of the two companies that were now coming together in one workplace. They ended up choosing a 160,000-square-foot space at the Durst Organization’s 151 W. 42nd St., an office building in the heart of Times Square. “Culturally, the two firms had really meshed together, and the space was an opportunity to solidify that and say ‘this is who we are’,’” said John Mack, Senior Partner at HLW, the architectural firm that designed Venable’s new office.
One of the most distinctive features of the new office is an interior staircase that connects all the floors of the office. “We made clear early on it was a must-have for us,” said Borello. “We wanted to create as much collaboration and collisions as possible.” Creating space for interactions was important for the firm. Legal offices typically have more private offices and less common areas, but each floor of Venable’s new office has a seating area next to the central staircase, and even in private offices, designers added casual spaces that allow for more informal small gatherings.
A cafe on the 49th floor is another crucial piece of the new office. The eatery has a number of banquettes and booths—which are very popular at the moment—and serves hot lunches and prepared foods to employees. The cafe connects to a 3,000-square-foot landscaped outdoor terrace. Leaders at Venable envisioned the cafe and outdoor space as another place for colleagues to be able to mingle, interact, and, hopefully, foster more collaboration. Other features of Venable’s new space include treadmill and meditation rooms and a mock courtroom. Since the office opened earlier this year, attendance has been strong, something leaders attribute to the thought and care put into designing the new space. Still, though there is a big push to bring workers back more often, Venable made telecommuting technology a big priority. Nearly all of the office’s conference rooms have multiple cameras with multi-angle imagery to accommodate those working remotely.
Making their office a place where people want to be also ties into an important part of Venable’s ethos. Many firm leaders adhere to the idea that the practice of law is an apprenticeship model and that an apprentice learns best by watching and learning with colleagues. Running into a colleague and striking up a conversation, or casual collisions, as McLaughlin calls them, are “extremely valuable” in the apprenticeship model, and those can’t happen over Zoom. “I think we will end up with better trained lawyers for being in the office,” he said. “That’s why we put so much time and energy into building a model office.”
Venable’s new modern office is the latest example of how law office design is evolving. While not all law firms will look to change things up in the same way as Venable and countless other companies across the spectrum have done, it’s hard to imagine that at least some of the latest trends won’t eventually find their way into even the most corporate of law offices. The pandemic has certainly put a focus on the employee experience in the workplace, and that’s led companies to design spaces that focus on wellness and reflect the comforts of home. But for the law industry, some of the changes we’re seeing today in office design and layout are also being driven by changing attitudes around company culture and a bigger emphasis on making the office part of a company’s brand messaging.