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Law firms creating office of the future

Shrinking needs offers chance to change workspace

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The vast law library at Drinker, Biddle & Reath's office in Florham Park is a thing of beauty to Andrew Joseph, but he knows it will also be a thing of the past once the firm moves to new space just across the parking lot.

"It's one of those libraries that you can see in a picture book," said Joseph, the partner in charge of the office. "The problem is, all of our attorneys do most their research online, at their desks right now. So there's no need for that sort of space."

It's one way Drinker Biddle will shed more than 20,000 square feet when it moves early next year but still end up with room to grow. And experts say the approach is becoming more common as New Jersey law firms reassess their space needs, now seeking more efficient, technology-driven offices that can attract new talent and save on overhead.

That often means reducing or eliminating libraries, clustering conference rooms and standardizing office sizes for partners and associates, said Ray Trevisan of the brokerage firm Cassidy Turley. Firms also are moving toward amenities and high-end finishes around reception areas, rather than "the old, stodgy (offices) with dark wood, gold curtains and heavy-looking furniture."

"The national and regional firms are all fighting for talent," said Trevisan, Cassidy Turley's managing principal in New Jersey. "So to get the young lawyers coming out of law school — the ones who are highly sought after — they try to make their spaces look a little newer, a little trendier."

As of last month, Trevisan estimated that law firms representing more than 500,000 square feet of space were weighing options in Essex, Morris, Bergen, Middlesex and Somerset counties. That number is constantly changing, he said, but "it's a good time to be out there" while tenants still have leverage in the office market.

For Drinker Biddle, a national firm, the new space at 600 Campus Drive will offer "a much more streamlined configuration" for its 150 attorneys and support staff in Florham Park, Joseph said. The space needs for paper storage and law books have gone down, and the new 60,000-square-foot office will house a centralized conference center.

Joseph also said the office will have a sleek new café and a stairwell connecting its two main floors — features the firm doesn't currently have — to give its partners a greater chance to cross paths each day.

"The hope is that it eliminates that sort of neighborhood aspect that you see in a lot of different firms, where you have different pockets for different practice groups and folks don't get to see each other," he said.

Space needs are also changing based on how firms use their support staffs, said Marc Trevisan, an executive vice president in Cushman & Wakefield's East Rutherford office. A recent survey by C&W's legal sector advisory group found that among 286 firms polled nationally, 72 percent averaged a three-to-one ratio of attorneys to support staff.

"So as people's leases roll — whether they stay or go — they want to change the way the space flows to support the way they do business today," Trevisan said. "And having a one-to-one timekeeper-to-support (ratio) is not the way it is anymore."

Locally, memories of Hurricane Sandy are weighing on the minds of New Jersey law partners considering new real estate needs. Ray Trevisan, the Cassidy Turley broker, said Princeton-based Hill Wallack LLP was fixed on having a site with a backup generator, driving them to a new building on Roszel Road that will be built by early 2015.

Other firms "had a lot of downtime after Sandy," said Trevisan, whose firm represented the landlord in the deal. And in the legal industry, "you're not selling widgets — you're selling time, and if your attorneys aren't working, you're losing money."

The good news: Law firms looking to move will find willing landlords.

Attorneys make good tenants, said Miles Berger, CEO of the Newark-based Berger Organization.

"Their visitor ratio is usually low, which cuts down on traffic flow within the building, and elevator usage and wear and tear," he said.

E-mail to: joshb@njbiz.com
On Twitter: @joshburdnj

Joshua Burd

Joshua Burd

Josh Burd covers real estate, economic development and sports and entertainment. Before joining NJBIZ in 2011, he spent four years as a metro reporter in Central Jersey. His email is joshb@njbiz.com and he is @JoshBurdNJ on Twitter.

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