How subletting can revitalize your law firm's vacant space
Vacant commercial space benefits no one, particularly in a thriving commercial market like Denver offers
When clients and opposing counsel walk past dark, empty offices, they receive a message that a law firm is struggling financially, even if it isn’t.
Vacant commercial space benefits no one, particularly in a thriving commercial market like Denver offers. Office space rent increased 21% between 2012 and 2017 nationally, according to Inc. Magazine, and Denver has tracked those numbers. With the rise in rents, law firms with unused space spend a surprising amount of money every month to maintain offices that sit vacant. In fact, the 2018 Cushman Wakefield National Legal Sector Benchmark Survey suggested that real estate is, “the No. 1 expense to law firms other than salaries.” This being said, in a competitive legal market, leveraging unused office space to promote a better bottom line for large law firms is more important than ever.
Improving law firm profit
Unused square footage strains a law firm’s operating budget and limits personal proceeds for equity partners. This is especially true when law firms from out of state are looking to make a move into the Colorado legal market and sign up for office space that they can expand into through long-term recruiting and acquisition strategies. This also happens when large chunks of law firms break off when a practice group leaves, sometimes causing entire hallways of offices to be left empty seemingly overnight. The situations that lead to vacant space are common in the legal industry. Establishment of a presence or re-establishment of a practice group both take time to resolve and often leave law firms with shadow space for months and years.
But shadow space for law firms should be a thing of the past. Subletting space is not a new idea in commercial real estate, but it can be novel to many law firm equity partners. Filling vacant offices in a large law firm through strategic subleasing arrangements with small law firms is already successfully happening in Denver.
This arrangement can bring in rental income every month for a firm. It also reduces overhead costs, freeing up money for partner bonuses and business development. Law firms that are used to experiencing depressed numbers each month due to excess space can see heightened financials in these tactical subletting arrangements. For equity partners, a significant boost in their personal profits is possible when they think outside of the box regarding their real estate commitments.
Creating a collaborative atmosphere
Many law firms find that the benefits of subletting their empty offices go way beyond just financial gain. Firms that achieve full usage of their office space maintain their reputation in the community while they expand and contract based on the flow of their business.
One of the key benefits of subletting to other law firms or solo attorneys is the opportunity for collaboration and growth. Law firms with subletters often rent to attorneys in non-competing areas of law. By choosing law firms to sublet that practice in non-competing — but still related — areas of law, firms give all involved parties the chance to collaborate and cross-refer business.
These arrangements are seamless when they find business development pipelines between their firms and even serve as co-counsel on cases. Sharing their vacant space gives the larger firm’s attorneys access to different professional circles and the ability to reach new clients and industries. The ethics of these arrangements are just as significant as the economic considerations.
Finding the right fit
Choosing the right tenant is a major factor in determining the success of subletting efforts. In addition to looking for tenants in complimentary practice areas, law firms enjoy the best results when their tenants fit into the existing work culture and environment.
Prospective tenants should have the opportunity to tour their potential space multiple times to assess the noise level, amount of foot traffic and other important factors. Prospective renters should have as much information as possible on hand about their law firm. A great example would be if your firm has rules regarding tenants’ furniture, decor, technology and use of office services, you should make those rules available upfront.
Minimizing potential setbacks
Processing applications, evaluating potential tenants, setting up tours, drafting lease agreements, and arranging technological and potential location separation to protect confidentiality and conflicts, are time-consuming tasks that often slow down busy law firms. When these tasks are outsourced to people with experience in leasing and subletting, the chance of errors decreases.
A subleasing service can analyze what your firm has to offer, which types of tenants are a viable fit, draw up contracts that meet both parties’ needs and address the firms’ broader goals of growth.
In 2020, large law firms have options when it comes to their vacant space. Business savvy firms have found a way to convert their previously empty offices into a monthly revenue generator. Through subletting, they maintain their office’s environment and ethical integrity but augment their culture with the energy of business development that small law firms inherently carry with them.
Shadow space does not have to be an annual loss that a law firm is forced to accept. The bottom-line is that strategic subleasing of empty space is a cash cow that provides steady income and profit for your law firm.
Jordan Deifik and Jay Kamlet are seasoned commercial real estate professionals. They are the co-owners of LawBank, Denver’s largest provider of shared office space for attorneys. In addition to maintaining multiple locations throughout the Denver metropolitan area, LawBank helps large law firms fill their empty space with vetted, qualified small law practice tenants.