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End of the Law Office as We Know It? COVID-19 Spurs Overhaul at Some Miami Firms

Jeffrey Schneider will tell you there is something odd about wearing a suit top with jeans to argue in front of a judge on Zoom, but he also will tell you that he loves it.

“I am happier working from home. Not only do I avoid an hour commute, I no longer put on a suit. I put on a pair of jeans and a T-shirt,” said the Levine Kellogg Lehman Schneider + Grossman founding partner.

The firm has thrived with most of its employees working from home, prompting it to take the groundbreaking decision of making working from home its new normal after COVID-19 wanes.

And Levine Kellogg is not alone in implementing significant office changes spurred by the pandemic, as other Miami firms are reevaluating their space needs and wants. In its own version of the new normal, S.D.A. Immigration Law abandoned its prime Brickell location for Coral Gables because it’s closer to where the majority of employees live. After months of working from home, free from the headache of traffic, employees now are back in the office but at least have a much shorter drive.

“Some of them live in West Kendall, so to drive down to Brickell was a pretty long drive,” said managing partner Morella Salazar-Dager.

Although she lives in Brickell and now has to drive to the Gables, the 15-minute trip isn’t much trouble, she added. It was the right move for the remainder of the small boutique firm as it cuts others’ drive by as much as 30 minutes.

To Schneider, the Levine Kellogg permanent shift to working from home is nothing short of “revolutionary,” he said.

“I used to just work one day a week from home. What we now realize is we can pull it off every day,” Schneider said. “Everyone feels like I do. It’s not just more comfortable. It’s more efficient.”

Levine Kellogg, with 15 attorneys and 10 support staff members, now is in a 15,000-square-foot office at downtown Miami’s Citigroup Center, where its lease runs out in summer 2022. The firm is having discussions with landlords, including Citigroup Center, to find a new space once the lease is up and it’s looking to cut as much as half of its floor plan, Schneider said.

Four or five attorneys at the firm have continued to work full time in the office throughout the pandemic as they find it more comfortable. So, the new office will have space to accommodate them and an additional four or five generic office rooms equipped with the bare minimum — such as laptops, a desk and chair — as they will be used on a rotational basis by other attorneys who need to sporadically go into the office, Schneider said.

“We are so much more productive working from home, which makes you happier professionally and personally healthier,” he added. “I don’t think we would have had the courage to pull something like this off without the pandemic.”

One thing about Levine Kellogg’s new office that won’t be basic is its technological capabilities. The firm plans on fast Wi-Fi and large screens in conference rooms to accommodate Zoom calls with multiple attendees.

“In Zoom, the more people, the smaller the photo. So having a bigger screen would be helpful,” Schneider said. “And just more laptops.”

Another innovation Schneider said the firm is mulling is using a lectern for Zoom, as attorneys are used to standing behind one when presenting in courtrooms. On a recent Zoom hearing, Schneider saw an attorney stand behind a home-fashioned lectern and liked the idea.

Egalitarian offices

These pandemic-induced law office redesigns also mean more firms are embracing trends that took hold before COVID-19, namely same-sized offices for all attorneys regardless of seniority.

Salazar-Dager, whose boutique S.D.A. has one other attorney and five support staff members, said the new office embraced this egalitarian approach as her office is the same size as her associate.

“For me, it’s like we are all the same team. I need her and she needs me and I need my staff, so everyone here is treated the same way,” she said.

S.D.A. in January moved from its 3,200-square-foot office at the Bank of America Financial Center to a 2,219-square-foot space on the 10th floor at Ofizzina, a relatively new office-condominium tower. In doing that, the firm embraced a trend that took hold before the pandemic, as law firms had increasingly started to allocate less square footage per attorney.

“We needed to downsize. Even my own personal office was, I don’t even know how big. At least four people could work in that space and it was only me. It was not really necessary,” Salazar-Dager said. “I think the technology we have today does not require [us] to have such large space.”

Big law offices are a thing of the past, when firms felt they needed to show off in front of clients.

“We were used to having these luxurious big spaces to somehow impress our clientele,” she said. “I don’t think that’s good anymore. The world is changing and the pandemic has taught us we need to reassess so many things. It’s just a new era.”

Levine Kellogg will follow in S.D.A.’s footsteps, as not only will Levine Kellogg downsize its total office footprint, but it will also have same-sized offices in its new space. This has been the trend for a couple years now, according to Schneider.

“That didn’t matter a couple of years ago, other than for lawyers with egos,” he said. “Right now, that simply doesn’t matter at all.”

The argument for more space

Ask Jay Richmond and he’ll tell you that law office needs really are on a case-by-case basis, as his Origin Construction firm is working on some firms’ new — and bigger — spaces.

“We’ve seen firms looking for larger spaces,” said Richmond. “We are currently building spaces where law firms are looking for more square footage.”

Origin builds out interior spaces for commercial clients and currently is working on behalf of five law firms.

A trend it has seen emerge as a direct result of the pandemic are antimicrobial curtains, which separate individual workspaces but also are decorative.

“You want those separations or at least for people to feel like they can be segregated in terms of health safety,” Richmond said.

In all, law office trends are consistently evolving and the pandemic is just one more factor to consider when redesigning workplaces. For a while, terrazzo floors were the fad and Origin was busy installing them, only to have to go back a few years later to take them out when terrazzo went out of style, Richmond said.

But some trends — like Levine Kellogg’s plan to permanently allow employees to work from home — are here to stay.

“I don’t think I would have ever had the courage to say, ‘I don’t need a dedicated office.’” Schneider said. “I just don’t think we would have been able to pull if off.’”

Origin Media Contact Information:

Aaron Gordon: / 305.962.3292

Jaclyn Dadas-Kraper: / 248.842.0597

Victoria Cela: / 786.514.9250