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.
- 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.
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 Lawyer, shows 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.
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.