In 2022, two new buildings were completed in Midtown: the Midtown Union building and a midrise known as 14th and Spring, adding a combined 925,000 sf to the market. Two more buildings are expected to finish construction within the next 12-24 months: 1020 Spring, a 25-floor, 525,000-sf center-core building with 15,000 sf of private terraces and 20,000 sf of amenities, including indoor and outdoor bars, is expected to deliver in the third quarter of 2024; and 1072 W. Peachtree, a mixed-use office and residential project that will feature 224,000 sf of office space, Midtown’s largest outdoor deck, and connectivity to I-75/85 and MARTA. With more upscale space on the market, this could alter current market dynamics.
What’s driving downsizing for legal occupiers in Atlanta?
In a significant paradigm shift, legal occupiers in Atlanta have been moving toward both single-sized offices and placing offices along the interior core of their space. Building floor plate configurations and, more importantly, economic viability are the primary motivations behind law firm space compression, as firms aim for cost efficiency in their real estate. They are meticulously calculating the balance between savings and the capital required for renovations or relocations, and when the equation favors substantial savings, they are making the change.
Law firm layouts have traditionally seen attorney offices, varying in size based on seniority, along the perimeter window wall of the floor, while placing files, libraries, paralegals, legal assistants and other administrative staff on the interior. However, file rooms and libraries are a relic of the past. In addition, individual paralegals and legal assistants support multiple attorneys, and core space is being revitalized for new functions. Interior offices, focus rooms for visiting attorneys or those who otherwise don’t have an office, meeting rooms and media rooms are some applications that are being placed around the core.
Notable firms that have downsized in the last 18 months include Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner (-22%); Burr & Forman (-42%); Copeland, Stair, Valz & Lovell (-50%); and Fisher & Phillips (-55%). Over the course of 2020, and through 2023 so far, legal occupiers have downsized their space by 10.1% on average.
Leasing activity healthy but below pre-pandemic high
There are 31 law firms on the AmLaw 100 list with offices in Atlanta,1 five of which claim Atlanta as their headquarters. In addition, 80 firms on the National Law Journal’s 2023 NLJ 500 list have offices in the Atlanta market.2 Despite the growing presence of leading law firms, leasing activity in Atlanta is nuanced and reflects market dynamics, external influences and, of course, the need for space at a specific point in time.
Looking back to 2017, there was a notable high point, with 582,000 sf of legal sector leasing activity, driven by lease expirations. Three years later, however, the pandemic brought a marked decline, with 338,000 sf of legal leasing activity. As the workforce adjusted, 2021 saw a slight uptick in leasing activity compared to the previous year, signifying a measured recovery. This trend gained further momentum in 2022, with another modest increase in expiration-driven leasing activity compared to 2021. In 2023, the trend is projected to continue, with three sizeable tenants in the market—totaling 280,000 sf—expected to transact before year-end. As it currently stands, legal leasing in 2023 accounts for 5.4% of all leasing activity in Atlanta, which is its second-highest share since the 5.5% seen in 2017.
Though national legal leasing activity came roaring back in 2022—reaching its highest level of 14.7 million sf leased during the year—Atlanta has been recovering at a slow and steady pace. The incremental growth in legal leasing activity over the last three years highlights the Atlanta legal sector’s ability to adapt and respond to changing circumstances. A rising number of firms are actively bringing their people back into the office for at least a few days each week, and as this happens, a steady upward trajectory in leasing activity is expected to continue.
1 Georgetown Law
2 National Law Journal, 2023