Law firms are catching up to a trend that’s been going on in corporate America for the last decade.
As companies flattened their hierarchies and cut costs, they put the squeeze on employees. The most efficient corporations set aside an average of 225 square feet per employee, which represents the total interior space divided by total number of workers, said Marty Festenstein, a principal at Gensler, an architecture and design firm in San Francisco.
By comparison, lawyers work in mansions, averaging about 800 square feet per lawyer. That includes ornate libraries and grandiose conference rooms.
“Lawyers are the biggest abusers of real estate,” said Festenstein, co-chairman of Gensler’s law firm practice group.
But as law firms pay more attention to the bottom line in an era of increased competition, space is being redesigned to include scaled-back offices, smaller libraries, narrower hallways and more communal rooms for meetings. Outside of salaries and benefits, real estate expenses are law firms’ biggest costs.
“Partners would rather keep more money as profit rather than pay in real estate,” said Steve Zuwala, president of Interior Construction Group, a Chicago building contractor.
The changes have left bruised egos–and some bruised furniture–in their wake.
So sensitive is the subject that when Gardner Carton & Douglas moved to a new skyscraper at 191 N. Wacker Drive last January, partners weren’t told that their offices had been downsized by 25 square feet.
“It was a little sneaky, I have to admit,” said Dennis Carlin, a partner who headed the firm’s relocation committee. “But it’s hard to notice because the offices are now square and before they were rectangular.”
The drive for efficiency has made Chicago law firms the most active tenants in the downtown commercial real estate market this year. Law firms accounted for about one-third of all lease deals, representing 2 million square feet, according to tenant representative Julien J. Studley Inc.
Lord Bissell & Brook announced last week it had signed a lease at 111 S. Wacker Drive, a new office building that is expected to be completed in 2005. Earlier this year, Sidley Austin Brown & Wood, one of the nation’s largest law firms, said it will leave its longtime headquarters at Bank One Plaza, 10 S. Dearborn St., to become the anchor tenant in a new Loop tower under construction across the street.
Even firms that stay put are renovating their offices. Katten Muchin Zavis Rosenman, at 525 W. Monroe St., is seizing the opportunity to standardize its partners’ offices to one size fits all from three sizes, said Daniel Perlman, the partner in charge of renovation.