Raising the bar on law firm office design

Leaders in the legal industry are making significant upgrades in the way they conduct business, interact with clients and recruit and retain talent. Modern-day law offices are adapting to these new working realities, transitioning from cookie-cutter mahogany walls/doors and closed offices to layouts that are collaborative, efficient and thoughtful for all generations. In the following Q&A, L. Robert Lieb, chairman of Mountain Development Corp. in Woodland Park, discusses how a changing legal culture is reinventing space needs of law firms and their attorneys, and how dated, world-class office properties are being successfully repositioned to satisfy the long-term needs of tenants.

Q: How has the physical appearance and layout of today’s law office evolved?

Robert Lieb: Individual offices are smaller, as more work is being done collaboratively in conference areas. With more documents stored and accessed from the cloud, walls of books and bookcases are no longer necessary; in offices where these elements do exist, book bindings may set the tone and establish atmosphere, but are rarely touched. With firms managing virtually every aspect of their business electronically, it eliminates the need to dedicate a large portion of core office space to the massive libraries and filing systems of the past. Aesthetically, glass is used to create a feeling of openness and facilitate a more approachable environment. Smaller conference rooms are designed to accommodate more agile working strategies. While the nature of law practices always will necessitate some private spaces, it is being supplemented by adding half-walls; open floor plans; high ceilings; and a design that emphasizes working efficiently in a contemporary environment.

Q: Many office buildings in North Jersey were built during the 1980s. How are property owners re-energizing these dated suburban campuses?

RL: Landlords and commercial property owners are uniquely positioned to help law firms meet their space requirements. By collaborating from the start of a redevelopment project, law firms can play a significant role in planning the design of their office space, as well as common areas and other building features. This partnership marries tenants’ space needs with branding/marketing; and creates a work environment that aligns with a firm’s identity. Among the reasons why MDC has been successful in this area is our unique insight when it comes to working with members of the bar. In 1972, I co-founded the law firm of Lieb, Wolff & Samson, and continued as a managing partner until 1977, when I left the practice to become a real estate developer. As a founding partner, I was involved in selecting and designing our office space and managing the financial aspects of these projects. This background allows me to talk with senior partners and lawyers about their space needs with a firsthand knowledge that many developers do not possess.

Q: Can you provide an example where this collaboration between landlord and tenant has yielded successful results?

Mountain Development Corp.
Lowenstein Sandler’s office at the 56 at Roseland building. ­

RL: The 56 at Roseland property in Roseland is a perfect example. In 2017, MDC completed the reimagining of 56 at Roseland into one of New Jersey’s premier suburban office settings. With an investment of more than $40 million to redevelop, contemporize and retenant the property, MDC repositioned it into a multitenanted work environment that today is home to two leading law practices: Lowenstein Sandler and Connell Foley, along with other professional firms. Lowenstein Sandler and Connell Foley both played a major role in planning the interior design of their individual office space and ensuring the rest of the building would be developed in a complementary manner. Meanwhile, at 21 Roszel Road in West Windsor, MDC teamed with Hill Wallack LLP — another large law firm — to create its built-to-suit headquarters space. This firm also played a major role in planning and space design.

Q: Many employees no longer maintain a ‘9-to-5’ lifestyle. How is the modern legal workplace supporting this?

RL: A building’s amenity package should aim to provide everything a sophisticated professional requires without ever having to leave the building. For example, 56 at Roseland features a hospitality-driven café with on-site catering, as well as a 500-seat meeting area with skylights and double height ceilings. The property also includes an outdoor lounge area with a fire pit and garden, landscaped green wall, and walking paths and hiking trails. 56 at Roseland also has a 2,500-square-foot fitness center with showers and a full regimen of exercise and wellness classes; volleyball courts; a hair salon; and a car washing and detailing service.

Q: Are there tangible benefits to firms that make prudent real estate decisions?

RL: Making smart real estate decisions most often yields the opportunity for law firms to not just improve their bottom line but also advance productivity, communication, branding, and employee retention and attraction. Overall, professional firms are doing more in less space; embracing modern layouts, technology and enhanced efficiency to create higher density and higher energy spaces.

L. Robert Lieb, chairman of MDC, is a managing member in all the company’s affiliated projects. The full-service real estate company is an active acquirer of a broad range of opportunistic and value-added real estate investments capable of generating attractive, risk-adjusted returns for both its principals and select partners.