Seven questions to ask yourself before you relocate your office

Considering a new office spaceFor many in the legal profession, the law offices of the 1950s through the 1990s just don't cut it anymore. Gone are the days of large law libraries, mountains of paper files, and one assistant per attorney. Today's advances in technology are going to rapidly multiply these changes and dramatically change how firms use their office space.

Firms that are doing it right—whether large or small, in Ohio or in France—not only lock in efficient space at economic terms that work for their businesses, but also create work environments that reflect their culture, ethos and values. As a result, they can work more productively and retain attorneys and support staff more effectively.

So how can you maximize the benefits of relocation, but minimize the potential disruption? How can your office actually serve as a recruiting tool for new hires and clients?

While there is no master blueprint that works for everyone, here are some key questions to ask:

Is the move necessary?

Law firms are often courted by building owners to anchor the newest development, which often comes with the highest per square foot rent in the market. Make sure you give adequate thought as to whether you can stay in your existing space. 

A relocation often costs more (and is more disruptive) to a firm than a simple upgrade or modification of existing space. It is important to fully assess what renovations can be done to your current space to meet the future needs of the business. A word of caution: Living through a renovation can be difficult on your ongoing operations, so make sure you factor this into your decision making.  

Am I spending more money on space than is necessary?

Some people mistakenly think that a growing rent bill is the sign of a growing company. Many firms actually need less space (and expense) rather than more space. With the added pressure firms are seeing clients place on their billing rates and fees, the bottom line impact of their real estate expenses is becoming more significant.

Traditionally, after moving into the newest “Class A” space, law firms have proceeded to build out spectacular Architectural Digest-style environments with high-end finishes and custom built-ins. Besides the obvious financial impact and increased operating or capital expense, this tactic may even turn off a client. One of my clients told me the story of visiting his law firm’s new offices. He fired the firm on the spot as he assumed the firm’s billing rates increased to cover the overhead of the firm’s accoutrements of wealth.

Following lock-and-step is another important issue for firms to consider—the financial security or guarantees a landlord will ask the firm to post to securitize the lease. For a partnership, this is an important issue that is often overlooked until the eleventh hour of lease negotiations. It is important to note that landlords look for a more substantial security deposit the larger the rental obligation and the larger their capital costs are associated with the lease.

Am I following old assumptions and paradigms?

Traditionally, law firms recognized career advancement with real estate. As you were promoted, your workspace became larger, with the goal of getting a private office and ultimately the oversized corner office. These days, instead of awarding large private offices as rewards, try to find other ways to recognize career advancement or a job well done.

Law firms across the country are shrinking their per-attorney footprint and shedding unnecessary spaces like libraries and large file rooms.
They are making individual offices smaller (and often embracing one, standard size office) by pulling the small conference tables out of individual offices and converting that saved square footage into dedicated conference rooms that the entire firm can use. The standard size offices, especially when they are the same size as the small conference rooms, provide for more flexibility and allow the firm to use office space more efficiently. 

These changes are often easier to implement than you might otherwise think due to a new culture of egalitarianism and equality, which has taken root in today’s business environment.

Am I hedging risk?

Because of the volatility of our economy, any law firm signing a new office lease should seek to hedge three potential types of risk:
  • Building risk (changes to your building’s infrastructure or ownership that could impact your occupancy);
  • Market risk (events in the global marketplace that trickle through to real estate and have an impact on rental rates); and
  • Business risk (the inherent risks within your own business that impact profitability).
So how do you mitigate these risks in your new office lease?
Before you sign your lease, you must clearly understand your ability (or lack thereof) to expand or contract your space over the course of that lease. This is especially important if you are considering a long-term—5- or even 10-year—lease.

These days, it is not uncommon for a law firm to experience rapid growth, or conversely, a decline in partners or practice groups. In this case, you will need more or less space almost immediately, even if your lease has not ended.

In negotiations, push to have as much lease flexibility as you can—with layers of options to expand, contract and terminate. In many instances, landlords are initially resistant to providing these rights, but firms should push for these options and even be willing to pay a premium for this flexibility.

Does the new space support our employees?

Your attorneys and staff definitely work long hours. If your office space is ultimately a recruitment and retention tool, wouldn't understanding the commuting habits of your present and prospective employees be paramount?

For this reason, seek to find an office location that is convenient for your attorneys and staff—and not just convenient for the company's partners.

Remember, too, that convenience is about more than just commute times. Firms are placing more importance on work-life balance as one of their core values. These firms are focusing on locations where there are amenities and services nearby to support this such as restaurants, day care, fitness centers, bike rooms, and even pet-friendly environments.

Am I taking into consideration who my clients (and future clients) are?

Your office space is ultimately a reflection of the firm’s values and culture. Forward thinking firms are taking it a step further and making sure their space is a place their clients also feel comfortable.

For instance, for a firm trying to expand its tech practice, traditional office space in a trophy high rise tower may not reflect the values or work style of these clients. Consider building in amenities that your clients can also use, such as conference rooms with great connectivity and internal spaces that can host industry mixers or startup competitions.

Does my advisor have a conflict of interest?

One final point: Find an experienced commercial real estate broker who does not have the typical conflicts of interest commonly found in the industry.

To determine this, ask the broker if his or her company also represents the building landlord in this or other transactions. Even if they say they keep a "wall" between their tenant and landlord representation divisions, they ultimately may not have your best interest at heart.

Your clients wouldn’t allow you to represents both sides of a negotiation, so never pick a brokerage firm that does.

By Howard Ecker (



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