When Sandra Brown Sherman, Julian Wells, Anthony Sylvester and Andrew Stamelman left a well-established law firm to start their own just over a year ago, they knew they would be leaving many perks behind.
One, they did willingly: The cushy corner office.
The four partners at Florham Park-based Sherman Wells Sylvester & Stamelman now work in spaces the same size as the office occupied by the youngest attorney on staff.
According to Sylvester, the layout makes a point, as it removes ego from the office selection process. Sherman Wells, he said, wanted to create a culture where the square footage of an office and the number of windows has no bearing on the value of that professional to the firm.
“We want everyone to understand that we are all in this together,” he said.
The idea is part of a growing trend in the profession that literally is getting a new look.
In an industry where precedent is king and confidentiality is paramount, many firms are taking down the wood-paneled walls to create open, collaborative workspaces. Corner offices are being turned into conference rooms. Legal libraries are being consigned closets in order to make room for lounge areas. Sleek computers and ergonomically designed furniture are replacing commonly conjured images of mahogany desks littered with legal pads and accordion files stacked waist high.
Today, law firms are looking more and more like Silicon Alley tech companies.
For many firms, the open concept is more than a term to describe the floor plan. It’s a philosophy.
At Hackensack-based Pashman Stein, an open-door policy actually means its attorneys have no doors on their offices. The partners believe this helps create a more collaborative environment.
“Litigation has gotten bigger,” said Michael Stein, a founding partner of the firm. “With the electronic revolution, you can be inundated with millions of documents that can be produced relatively easily. The amount of information that is now exchanged during discovery can be overwhelming.
“While there have always been teams of lawyers working on a big litigation, historically, this created some tension for the lone wolf lawyer-type who had the desire to maintain control of the case. Because of exponential growth of information produced during discovery phase, the way we work today is a much more collaborative enterprise.”
One many appear eager to join.
Just one year after leaving Morristown-based Riker, Danzig, Scherer, Hyland & Perretti LLP, the partners at Sherman Wells say they have grown their new firm from 16 attorneys to 25 and have taken on an additional 500 square feet of office space.
The partners, Sylvester said, realize being handed the keys to the corner office is a rite of passage many young lawyers still aspire to today.
Because of it, Sylvester feels the open floor plan design provides an element of self-selecting recruitment in that way. If the collaborative culture appeals to an associate, that person makes a good fit. Associates with the goal of ascending to the big office need not apply.
Interestingly enough, recruitment is a major reason for the office change.
In boutique law firms, partners have been dipping into their own pockets to secure the next-generation leaders of their firms.
For the last 10 years, the partners at Pashman Stein have reinvested much of their profits back into the firm. They believe recruiting talented, young lawyers is their best opportunity for growth in the current market. The investment seems to be paying off, as the firm has grown 25 percent over the last four years.
“We wanted to create a unique alternative to working at a big law firm,” Stein said. “Eventually, you get the momentum behind you and become the firm you set out to be.”
Today, law school graduates are looking for firms with a clear vision for the future.
“We all see how the legal market is changing, and graduates want a firm that is thinking about the future in a proactive way,” said Jessica Miles, assistant dean for career services and associate clinical professor at Seton Hall University School of Law.
“They are taught that they need to be thinking about the future of law from the minute they walk through the doors here and they are looking for a firm that does that as well.”
Miles added that millennial lawyers also value firms that provide support for business development and personal growth.
Sherman Wells is focused on recruiting millennial lawyers who are likely to build careers with the firm.
The partners at Sherman Wells also step up by spending much of their own time mentoring young attorneys and encouraging pro bono work. They actively help new lawyers build and nurture a client list of their own.
Sherman Wells instituted what it calls a Generation Next program. As part of this program, the partners serve as professional matchmakers. They reach out to their counterparts at major corporations in other industries to organize dinner or drinks for the future leaders from both organizations to mix and mingle. The elders make introductions, put their credit cards on the table and leave. The only requirement is that the young participants must take the initiative to meet with their new connections again.
“Our philosophy is that we can deliver the same top-quality legal services to clients and do it in an atmosphere with good, strong, young talent who want to stay here, grow this firm,” Sylvester said. “We want this firm to continue to grow far beyond the practice life of the main partners, so we make keen investments in our young people.”
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First-year law student enrollment is at its lowest point since 1973. And while the statistic could signal a dearth of talent in the legal profession, some argue it indicates a healthy market response.
Nine percent of U.S. law firm associates lost their jobs in 2009. And as recently as 2013, there was only one job for every six graduating law students.
“The market for law students reacted appropriately,” said Patrick C. Dunican Jr., chairman and managing director of Gibbons PC and sitting chair of the board of visitors at Seton Hall Law School. “Fewer kids decided to go to law school because there are so few jobs waiting for them.”
That, in turn, helped correct the market.
“With regard to law firm hiring, it’s been a buyers’ market for seven years,” Dunican said. “We already should have seen an uptick, but that hasn’t happened yet.”
But does fewer students mean fewer future superstars? Dunican doesn’t believe so.
“If you go to law school in this environment you must really want to be a lawyer, and that means you’ll probably be a very good lawyer,” he said.