Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Lawyers Like it Large

I recently presented on workplace trends in law firms at the Legal Services Property Forum, and this blog represents my thoughts on the subject. The forum was held at the city offices of Allen & Overy. Whilst Allen & Overy’s office is a fine example of the modern workplace of a legal practice, and a great setting for the event, it is nonetheless quite traditional.

When discussing workplace trends, whether the offices of law firms or other organisations, we first need to understand the past and the current situation. The painting shown above depicts a 17th century local law practice. It shows that the two lawyers are either sharing an office or are even perhaps in an open plan working environment. What is unusual is that the lawyers have allowed clients into their personal workspace rather than meeting them in a client suite. But, as expected, they have lots of paperwork (case notes) on their desks, shelves and the floor.

This next image represents the typical layman’s perception of the lawyers office. It is a large private office, with dark wood, a big desk, leather seats and copious bookshelves. Do not despair if you do not recognise this lawyer’s office as it is actually a set from Desperate Housewives. So Hollywood is contributing to the stereotype image of the lawyer’s office.

But as this image of the workspace at Norton Rose shows, lawyer’s office have got lighter with more glass and the furniture is more modern and minimalist. But nevertheless the majority of law firms still have private perimeter offices for partners, lawyers and associates, with support staff located at the centre of the floor plate. So has there really not been any significant development in the working environments of lawyers?

The Lawyer carries out an annual survey of the top 200 law firms, and last year they enquired about the workspace. The survey results indicate that only one-third of UK law firms have moved to fully open plan working environments, with the others resisting change. Alternatives to open plan are the shared office for a lawyer and his/her junior or the hybrid studio, but there is very little appetite for agile working. I want to discuss why there is resistance to change in office layout but first it is worthwhile describing the hybrid studio.

The hybrid studio was adopted by Eversheds a few years ago, but is not a new concept, for example it was proposed to but rejected by DLA around 8 years ago. It mostly consists of perimeter partitioned bays – the partitions are around 2m high without doors so are not fully enclosed. The cynics might consider the hybrid studio to be a modern version of the despised cubicle, but there are some subtle important differences. The partitions are perpendicular to the window, allowing light to pass through to the areas at the centre of the floor plate (which usually accommodate the support staff in open plan). The partitions are also made of glass above the desk screen height, again allowing light to pass through. The default perimeter area provides space for two desks side by side, perhaps for a lawyer adjacent to the window and junior gatekeeper next to the circulation route. However, the partitions are sufficiently flexible to allow bays for 4, 6 and 8 lawyers to be created. Pink Noise is introduced to help reduce acoustic distraction and the bays are supported by collaboration spaces, informal meeting spaces etc. The Eversheds lawyers appear satisfied with hybrid studio space and say it helps collaboration, represents their culture, and gibes a good impression to clients. So does the hybrid studio represent the state of the art for law firm offices?

The key question is why there is resistance to open plan and agile working by lawyers when the drivers for change indicate that this is the way forward. The drivers for change include:
  • Globalisation – law firms are off-shoring and out-sourcing basic services, lawyers now have to manage global teams;
  • Competition – the Legal Services Act and globalisation has increased competition, reducing costs to maintain competitive advantage is now a priority;
  • Client proximity – law practices are now relocating closer to their clients and lawyers are increasingly expected to visit clients rather than clients come to them;
  • Collaboration – individual concentration is still important but there is an increase in team sessions with legal teams replacing individual stars, plus case teams regularly assemble, disband and reform;
  • Support – secretary to lawyer ratios are increasing as new lawyers are more self-sufficient and savvy with using technology to assist in basic administrative tasks;
  • Flexibility – surveys of lawyers indicate that 36% believe flexible working options are important to attract and retain staff.

Despite these drivers, resistance to change amongst lawyers continues. An article which appeared in LawPractice Magazine back in 2004 proposed that lawyers believe that traditional office space essential due to 3 Cs:

  • Core services – refers to the basic facilities required for lawyers to carry out their core work activities, for example storage space for filing, technology and office equipment for communication/reports, and a room for conducting quiet work and transactions;
  • Collaboration – lawyers need to come together to collaborate with their colleagues, to share knowledge and help each other resolve cases, plus they need to meet clients and opponent lawyers for negotiation;
  • Control – relates to lawyers who wish to see their junior and support staff and call on them as and when required.
But these barriers can mostly be overcome with simple, inexpensive modern technology. Inexpensive office furniture and equipment means that the home office can easily be set up. Thin client technology allows lawyers to access applications and files from their home PC and mobile devices. Lawyers were early adopters of Blackberry so should welcome computer tablets which offer more functionality allowing them to work on the move or a variety of locations (in and out of the office). VoiP technology allows call to be easily forwarded so that the lawyer is always contactable. Collaboration tools, such as WebEx and LiveMeeting allow lawyers to stay in touch and work with colleagues. The new application service providers, such as CaseShare, CaseCentral and Lextranet, centrally store litigation documents for sharing, downloading and annotating. Tablet technology means that such documents can now be comfortably read on screen without the need to print off. There are even reports of law practices going completely paperless, and they report knock-on benefits in terms of efficiency, flexibility and productivity. But is technology sufficient to overcome the barriers to change or is it simply down to the attitude of the lawyer and work culture to which they belong?

(modified version of chart from The Lawyer)

Another question is whether the space provided affects performance. The space analysis produced by The Lawyer provides a useful insight into the space required and used by law firms; they found that the average occupational density was 206 sqft/person. This is comparable with the British Council for Offices (BCO, 2009) figure for law firms of 225 sqft/person but much larger than the median average of 114 sqft/person across all sectors. So it does indeed seem that lawyers like it larger. The chart above, from The Lawyershows that Allen & Overy have the second lowest density at 340 sqft/person whereas Minster Law highest density at less than 100 sqft/person across the building. This is quite a large range and it would be useful to know if the amount of pace provided affects the performance of the business.

Interestingly, The Lawyer not only provided standard space metrics, like density and total cost of occupancy, but also reported the revenue per sqft. This is akin to sales per sqft in retail, and a good indicator of how well the building supports the business (a proxy measure of productivity). The survey indicates that Minster Law’s space not only costs one-tenth (£2K per person) of that of Allen & Overy (£19K per person) but the revenue generated per sqft is also much higher. It is probably unfair to compare a large city law practice (£1,183M turnover) with a small regional one (£104M turnover), or compare a Fosters building with a speculative office on an out-of-town business park (so caution is required in interpreting such benchmark figures). However, the results do appear to illustrate that a higher density workspace (presumably fully open plan) does not necessarily hinder business performance.

Personally I believe the jury is out on whether open plan environments are more productive than more enclosed ones – there is as much evidence for private offices as against. But what is clear is that open plan is more space efficiency and cost-effective, and that is a key driver in the UK. I wholeheartedly agree in providing the right space to support work activities and productivity. However, I do not condone providing private offices to lawyers simply because they consider themselves special and different to all the other knowledge workers – ones who insist that they need an office but then adapt and are contented with a well-designed landscaped office environment with flexible working arrangements.

I suspect that private offices are currency in the legal sector; they are a perceived prerequisite for attracting top lawyers. With competition becoming fiercer then hiring the best lawyers is fundamental to business success. It therefore takes a brave property or facilities manager to undo this outmoded obligation of providing private offices.

So if the drivers for change indicate that a move to modern working practices is beneficial, and if the technology can overcome the requirements for a traditional office, and if open plan offices do not necessarily have a negative effect on law practice performance, then one can only assume that it is the lawyers attitude that prevents a shift in office design. Quod erat demonstrandum, I rest my case.


  1. Nigel good article. Top talent attraction and enabling work effectiveness is obviously key in all sectors, but in such competitive times it would be interesting to see whether there would be any re-assessment or impact on office layouts through application of "internal property rents" - often property is seen as a free corporate resource and lost in general overheads.

  2. Many thanks for all the comments (24 so far) on LinkedIn:

  3. Some good points. Being in Germany and focusing alot on law firms, my sense is London is one of the few places in the world that is (maybe slowly) making some real changes. Maybe something to do with rents that are 3x Frankfurt or Munich, but sharing of any sort is very rare here. Partners of course need to be mindful of what is needed to attract and retain fee earners - a great workplace / real estate solution that no one will work in is not a good strategy.

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