Trading Spaces: Tips for Moving Your Law Firm into New Office Space

07/01/2006
Reprinted from:
Published on 7/06

So excited about your office move that you have focused more on the wall color than Internet access? Or has planning to move your firm proven so overwhelming that you don't even know where to begin? In this article, legal coach and consultant Edward Poll takes you step by step through the moving process and offers up some important factors to consider. Whether you just need help prioritizing or you've just begun contemplating a new space, Ed will lead the way. This article contains 1,161 words.

INTRODUCTION

Sooner or later almost every law firm, large or small, faces the necessity of making an office move. Regardless of the size of the practice, an office move is a complicated and difficult project and requires considerable thought, preplanning, and coordination. Even though the list of things to be done seems long and extensive, one consideration heads the list: defining the space that you want, physically and contractually.

PREPARING THE LIST

Begin by preparing a list of the specific reasons why your firm wants to move. Add to that list the features you seek in the new space. Survey the lawyers and the staff to learn about very precise wants and needs: number of electrical outlets in each person's space, location of data and telephone cables, proximity of copiers and fax machines to work areas, etc. This list becomes a tool to share with brokers and leasing agents as a qualifier for the space they want to show you.

NEGOTIATING THE SPACE

As you negotiate for new office space, have three factors locked firmly in mind: what you can afford, which features are most critical to you, and what you're obligating yourself to before you sign the lease. Remember that virtually everything can be negotiated before you sign the papers but very little can change after the lease is signed.

These are just some of the items to consider:

  • Tenant improvements and betterments (TIBs)

    These are the improvements made to the space for your occupancy, paid for by the landlord, tenant, or both as negotiated.

  • Contractor

    The landlord may use someone regularly. This is not a bad option to consider, as the contractor will know the landlord and the building and can proceed more quickly.

  • Free Rent

    Depending on market conditions, you may be able to negotiate one or several months rent-free, as an inducement to signing the lease. Know your market, and check to see what other law firms have done before attempting to negotiate free rent.

  • Tenant Broker

    A commercial real estate broker who only represents tenants, not landlords, may be your best ally in locating and negotiating space requirements.

SETTING THE DATE

The only way you will be able to establish an accurate move date is to know exactly when the new space is available, when the TIBs will be completed (be sure to allow for overruns and changes), and when such utilities as the phones and the computer network will actually be connected. Keep in mind, the larger the firm, the more extensive the TIBs — and the greater the chances for delays. Allow time for them in your planning.

REFINING THE TIBS

It is essential for you to ensure that your firm fits into the new space. The best way to do that is to work with a commercial space planner familiar with the commercial office requirements of law firms. Work with the space planner, using your initial list and tenant improvement budget, to finalize all space requirements. These elements are essential:

  • Solicit input from your firm's technical specialists — those who work with the computers, phones, and files — to make sure the space meets their needs.

  • Establish what goes where by using drawings and cutouts to scale, so that everything you're planning to move actually fits into the new space.

  • Decide whether certain items of office furniture should be replaced or eliminated altogether to accommodate the new space.

  • Locate telephone, electrical, and computer hookups according to your schematic space layout. Err on the side of too many. They are more expensive to add later.

  • Give one person in the firm the authority to coordinate all aspects of the move with the landlord's representative, the space planner, the contractor, and the mover. By having only one person able to initiate change orders, you have a better chance of minimizing costly and confusing changes that only make things worse.

INSPECTING THE NEW SPACE

Try to schedule at least four inspections of your new space prior to the actual move date. By no means should you limit yourself to these four alone — you should make as many inspection visits as seem necessary. However, at minimum, the first inspection should include representatives of your landlord, telephone service, computer network installer, and copier/fax company. This should be done early in the process to familiarize them with what needs to be done.

Have a second meeting with these representatives after all have indicated that their work is complete. A third meeting should involve the mover that you have selected as the result of an RFP. If it's possible, meet with movers in the new space before they submit their bids; it can save you time and money later.

Finally, you and your landlord representative should meet as close to the moving day as possible, to uncover and hopefully resolve any last minute problems.

DEFINING THE DETAILS

There are of course many details to complete before the move that do not formally relate to the facility itself, such as notifying everyone from clients to bar associations. However, defining a wide range of facility-specific concerns beforehand can make the moving day much more successful:

  • Make sure your mover knows the official "moving hours" for your new space. These may be limited to off hours when there are few or no people working in the building.

  • Take note of, and share with your mover, all information regarding elevator usage (particularly including security considerations), loading dock requirements, and floor protection guidelines.

  • Schedule the installation of mechanical or technical equipment as far in advance as possible before the actual move date.

  • Develop a plan to color-code and tag all files, furniture, equipment, and artwork that will be moved and go over floor plan diagrams with your mover beforehand.

  • Involve everyone in the firm, beginning with an all-hands visit to the new space before the actual move; include the appointment of move coordinators to oversee activities on specific floors or in specific parts of each floor.

  • Don't forget your obligations to clean up and repair (if required) your old office space. Schedule a walk-through with your landlord before the move to identify the items for attention. Follow up with another walk-through once everything is complete.

CONCLUSION: WINNING THE BATTLE

No military leader would consider taking an army into battle without a plan for logistics, troop movement, and battle formation. An office move is like a battle, and one for which you must plan well. From the moment you begin the process you should construct a formal timeline (which will of course change as events develop), make it visual using a chart or bulletin board, and make sure everyone in the firm is aware of the progress. Meet regularly with all the external players noted above to eliminate surprises.

If you keep these considerations in mind, the result will be a facility that makes your legal practice more efficient and effective for staff and clients alike — which, after all, is the whole point.

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