Corner Offices: Once Prized, Gone at Some Law Firms
September 22, 2016

Next year, McGuireWoods will move into new digs in Pittsburgh that will have a decidedly modern touch.

It’s an idea that’s been gaining currency across the country for a number of years, as law firms seek to eliminate unnecessary hierarchical structure and appeal to millennials: the lowliest first-year associate is getting the same exact office as the biggest rainmaker at some firms, which isn’t quite how law firms used to work.

“People are practicing differently now,” said Bob Couture, executive director of McGuireWoods, in an interview this week. “They’re working on teams more than they used to.”

“I had heard about a lot of grumbling when we first announced it,” said Couture of the stir among senior partners. “Nobody grumbled to me, they just grumbled in the background. They reserved their protest until we tried it, and then they didn’t.”

The firm, which staffs more than 1,000 lawyers in 23 offices, first acquired single-size offices in 2008 — in Charlotte and Raleigh — when it merged with Helms Mulliss & Wicker. But it adopted its own universal-office-size layout in 2010, with the launch of London. Today, six offices possess such a layout, and it’s in discussions to add more, even two more places after the launch of Pittsburgh, which is coming in 2017.

Not only has McGuireWoods taken up the concept as its mission, but other big firms such as Dentons, Nixon Peabody, Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman and Paul Hastings are creating their own office plans where all lawyers are created equally in the eyes of the real estate gods. The goal: foster collaboration, reduce costs, all while gaining approval of millennials choosing which major law firm they should join.

“Initially, we did get some push back,” said Andrew Glincher, CEO of Nixon Peabody, of the lead-up to its Washington, D.C. layout, which went same-size in June 2015. “Some partners said, ‘We earn this — It’s a right of passage. It’s where we work.'”

In response, Glincher made an offer: He told some partners who had fought the change that they could have two offices, and then pay the difference of what the single, smaller office would have cost (a payment he estimated would have come out to between $12,000 to $15,000). “Nobody took me up on that,” he said. “I’m not sure how popular it was, but I said, ‘Listen, we think this is better for our business.'” Glincher said that real estate costs comprise between eight to 10 percent of gross revenue, which stood at $461 million in 2015, according to The American Lawyer.

Today, Nixon Peabody has standardized offices for the outer space of its Los Angeles office, and is currently in negotiations to carry out a full-scale same-size office plan for new space in Manhattan, as it’s moving out of its building on Madison Avenue. The lease has not yet been signed, so Glincher declined to comment further, but said that the new office will be relatively nearby its current location.

The trend is also noted in a forthcoming real estate report by Savills Studley, based data from a variety of sources, including legal and real estate publications. In a copy shared with Big Law Business was a chart that showed 12 law firms that staff lawyers in single-size offices, including some big ones.

Heidi Learner, one of the real estate experts who produced the report, explained the impetus behind the change.

“We have heard from a number of associates that it can be off-putting to knock on a corner office,” said Learner. “And the notion is, ‘We’re all in on this together,’ and I don’t need to go to the corner office to ask a senior partner a question. It makes it, from a workplace standpoint, a little more open.”

Assuaging millennials isn’t the only factor. Law firms also reap the benefits of cost-savings that come with a more efficient floor layout. And there’s also one other interesting factor driving the identical-size office wave: the space is fungible, and as lawyers come and go, they’re easy to replace.

Tiffany Winne, another real estate expert with Savills Studley, said: “You may not know one day to the next what the ratio of associates to partner may be, but the need to know that evaporates when you can shift partners into associate offices...”

Corner Offices: Once Prized, Gone at Some Law Firms

Related Stories

2016 Savills Effective Rent Index
National Office Sector Report (Q2 2016)