Redefining the Practice of Law – New Trends Create Challenges and Opportunities

Redefining the Practice of Law

New Trends in Office Design, Technology and Managing Competition Create Challenges and Opportunities

The legal industry is in the midst of tremendous changes that will inevitably have a profound impact on the way attorneys approach their business. In the wake of these changes, law firms are being challenged to control rising expenses, improve client services and responsiveness, boost efficiency and infuse technological support to improve overall productivity. New trends in space planning, document technology, data security and the services offered will all redefine how law offices practice, how they meet the ever-changing needs of their client base, and how they strategically position themselves competitively.

Gaining a Competitive Edge

While much has changed about law, law office design and technology, the challenge to maintain a competitive edge remains of primary interest to law practices. Taking the necessary steps to ensure survival in this ever-changing industry will prevail as the legal sector is transformed. Embracing technological advances in document management, storage and retrieval; revolutionizing the traditional office space to allow more mobility, agility and flexibility; and opening our eyes to a broad spectrum of external services will all become key success factors.

In a recent survey of the 1200 largest U.S. law firms, 98% of attorneys agreed that telecommuting will increase over the next 10 years. How will your law firm effectively meet the objectives necessary to help your business thrive in this competitive market without compromising core business? How will you implement and balance these changes to maximize profitability and gain a competitive edge?

The process begins by developing a better understanding of what the key Law Trends are and how these trends can shape the way your business operates and, ultimately, how they will affect the bottom line.

How Will The Trends Shape The Way Your Business Operates?

Building Selection and Design: Traditional high-rent law space is giving way to more streamlined real estate holdings as large firms consolidate operations and opt for functional, simplified space. While impressive workspace still prevails, having an expensive, high-profile property may no longer make good business sense. To aid in the building selection, more law practices are seeking the expertise of an unbiased, tenant-only real estate broker to assist them in the building selection process. Architects added to the leasing team early in the process assist law firms in developing specific space requirements by analyzing the cultural and functional aspects of the business. Many firms are opting for sustainable design as this initiative reaches main stream. The long-term goal: to create a space that meets functional requirements and positively reflects the company.

TRENDS TO WATCH – Real Estate Opulent, high-rent real estate for law practices are shifting to smaller, more efficient office spaces. Trends indicate that more attorneys are utilizing their office space as a tool to support staff, enhance services, and create a workspace that promotes flexibility, collaboration and technology advancement.

Office Space and Size: While the influence of defining status and communicating brand visibility remains important in the legal sector, law firm trends indicate that office space and allocation within the practice are changing dramatically. With many law practices seeking to reduce overhead, spatial reduction has become one of the single most important means of streamlining expenses. Within the office itself, shared offices for retired partners, universal workstations, consolidation of conference spaces and reduction in law library space are at the forefront of changes. War rooms or, essentially, central group spaces for attorneys working on case trials, are becoming the norm allowing a cost-effective way to support teams in an environment that supports collaboration. Commuter offices with connections for computers and telephones are providing flexible convenience aimed at providing a reserved space for visiting attorneys or retired partners.

Space as a Tool – Sensible, Simple and Sophisticated Law offices of the future are more diverse than ever. Space doesn’t necessarily equate to status as more law firms are scaling down to reduce overhead and viewing space as a tool to help them run their business more effectively. More offices are opting for healthier, sustainable environments, more relaxed, communal surroundings with better services and, certainly, more mobility to facilitate meetings from virtually anywhere inside or out of the office. Office space and the profound affect it can have on the overall productivity of your office are driving a change in how practices view the profile of their space.

Three factors to be considered when determining space requirements: Simple – Consider how your office operates, the proximity of office space to key amenities, support clusters and teaming environments. Efficiency within the office will enhance greatly if you consider the process and create spaces that accommodate them.

Functional – Furniture plays a key role in the functionality of your office. Successful furniture selection and placement can prove extremely beneficial allowing for the reduction of total office square footage as well as freeing up prime floor space. In addition, consolidation of conference spaces, clustering meeting spaces and shifting traditional book storage to research zones can have a vast impact on how your business operates.

Effective — Office space must have agility to function effectively enabling you and your staff to quickly respond to changing needs. New offices must meet current demands and provide the necessary foundation for future growth and technological advancement.

Document Management: Paperless Office – Myth or Fact? Since the inception of desk top computers paperless offices have been a dream of most businesses. Most law practices question whether this goal of a paperless office is truly attainable. The truth is, paper is a necessary, key part of how law offices practice and, to this day, a good portion of day-to-day work is still paper-based. However, there is hope. Technological advancements are driving offices toward a paperless, or, at the very least, paper reduced environment.

Through advanced technology, attorneys have options to assist them in record management (RM), the process of identifying, organizing, maintaining and accessing all the records that are created and received by the organization during its day-to-day operations. New options include a myriad of choices to convert paper documents into searchable digital archives including digital scanners, document management, document storage and outsourcing.

However, making the transition to a paperless, or paper reduced office, is a daunting task for most law practices. Many question where to begin, what technology to adopt, and what affect these changes will have on their bottom line.

Creating an environment where attorneys partner with technology specialists to tailor their needs will be a key success factor. As advances are adopted, electronic workflow processes, document retrieval systems and data security will be the norm. Knowledge management will be a critical success factor as clients demand more and expect to pay less.

While many firms have been reluctant to take advantage of these advances due to security challenges; the future will be driven by firms who embrace technology as a means to improve process and efficiency.

TRENDS TO WATCH As technology continues to be a catalyst for change in the legal sector, efficient systems and state-of-the-art advances in data security and accessibility will drive law firms of the future to shift toward a more digital environment.

Data Security: Ensuring vital data is kept safe from corruption, controlling accessibility and ensuring absolute privacy of personal data is of primary importance to law practices. While most law firms take adequate steps to ensure protection of personal data, breaches can and do happen. As a result, efficient systems and state-of-the-art advances in data security and accessibility are driving law firms of the future to shift toward more digital technology. As advances are adopted, electronic workflow processes and document retrieval systems will become the norm. Many firms are reluctant to take advantage of these advances due to security challenges; however, the future will be lead by firms who work with technology to improve process and efficiency.

Staffing Ratios / Outsourcing: As many attorneys seek ways to reduce overhead expenses and increase revenue, the once integral services provided within the walls of law practices are moving toward outsourcing ratios. The once expansive team of secretaries, typists, paralegals and administrators are reducing dramatically. Many firms are moving from a 1 or 2-to-1 ratio to as high as 4-to-1 metric.

A number of large law firms are embracing the idea of outsourcing routine legal work locally, nationally, and in some cases, internationally to India, South Korea, Australia and other locales with far lower labor costs. Support clusters in which a group of professionals support a large number of attorneys are becoming more commonplace along with administrative and IT support staffing positioned in a more remote, cost effective location. The U.S. legal industry, according to government data, is a $184 billion industry with a million trained attorneys and approximately 500,000 support personnel such as paralegals and assistants. Trends indicate that thousands of support personnel jobs will outsourced within the next several years.

TRENDS TO WATCH: Offshore Outsourcing This year 12,000 legal jobs moved offshore, a mere 1%; however, by the year 2015, look for this trend to continue as a projected 40,000 jobs become outsourced.

Libraries / Research: Extensive law libraries which once occupied a large portion of law office space are being replaced by desktop technology. Many firms are converting the space once reserved for the hard-bound library to more flexible multi-purpose meeting spaces. Traditional book storage and research libraries are being replaced by research zones within the office occupying minimal square footage. Look for the library of the future to be small enough to fit on a disc in your pocket.

Conference Rooms: Technology, video conferencing, connectivity, collaboration and flexibility are all buzz words associated with the shift in conference rooms. What was once the traditional, formal hub of the firm is now being replaced by a group of conference, break-out areas and flexible support spaces offering the latest in audio and video conference equipment, connectivity and displays. Meetings are taking place more informally in the cafeteria, small niche centers or in what used to be the library. Law firms are establishing conference centers with state- of-the-art technology and the latest trends in flexible furniture design to accommodate small or large meetings. New conference space incorporates a more casual, collaborative work space with some offices incorporating coffee bars to promote and enhance social interaction.

TRENDS TO WATCH: A Shift in Conference Rooms What was once the traditional, formal hub of the firm is now being replaced by a group of conference, break-out areas and flexible support spaces offering the latest in audio and video conference equipment, connectivity and displays.

Negotiation/Arbitration Tools: Law practices are discovering the importance of using space to their advantage to weigh the outcome of negotiation and arbitration. By factoring in the psychology of physical space and using it as a tool attorneys are able to potentially shift outcomes in their favor. Comfortable, relaxing, keeping room facilities are being utilized for attorney clients allowing a stress-free foundation from which to negotiate.

Ancillary Services: In order to meet the diverse needs of their client base and generate more income, many attorneys are layering ancillary services onto their current repertoire of law services. Ancillary services enhance the value-added allure for law practices by providing clients with additional, convenience services to meet their immediate needs. Becoming a “full-service provider” offering a variety of legal and non-legal services, however, has its share of ethical concerns that are part of an ongoing debate.

Roy Abernathy is Managing Principal with Atlanta-based Jova/Daniels/Busby Architects and is a partner with FWAJDB Architects – a partnership focused on facilities at the intersection of animal and human health. He is actively involved in AIA Georgia serving as 2012 AIA GA President, a member of the Industrial Designers Society of America (IDSA), International Interior Design Association (IIDA), and is a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Accredited Professional.

With years of experience as both a consultant and architect, Roy’s expansive knowledge of design, workplace performance and green building allows him to approach a project from many perspectives, allowing him an unparalleled ability to innovate. His expertise in operations, program management, real estate strategy and sustainable design span a broad range of industry sectors including civic, hospitality, religious, corporate and higher education with a dedicated specialty in veterinary medicine facilities.

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