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Do I Really Need My Office? 

Image © Bethany Legg

As the debate over next generation legal offices carries on, we are seeing an acceptance of open plan settings amongst fee earners at a number of U.K.-headquartered law firms. This slow yet growing trend is still far from the norm when it comes to legal office design, and it may always pale in comparison to the percentage of firms who oppose a cellular occupation.

From my experiences working with many law firms, both U.K. and U.S. based, there has always been a notable divide in the culture of the practice floors. Most U.S. firms have no interest in exploring open plan solutions for their fee earners. The cultural adjustment is often too far for them, and would split standards across the Atlantic to a degree too far to accept for most.

There are now many more U.S. practices crossing the pond to aggressively hunt for legal work in the London market; new talent will often be lateral hires from U.K. based law firms. In some events, this can lead to an interesting equation were a trainee fee earner who may have started at an open plan firm goes to work for a cellular firm in what might feel like an upgrade, although the job position is basically identical. This isn’t a geo-cultural issue necessarily, but could easily happen between any two law firms who operate different space models for their practice floors.

U.S.-based law firms are going through cultural change, though one of the key changes has been to adopt a single sized cellular space that is capable of being occupied by one or two fee earners. This breaking down of the traditional partner/associate two-tier systems catches up with what much of the top U.K.-headquartered firms have operated as a floorplate model for decades and gives the strongest solution for ultimate flexibility and churn when needed. This step also accepts that a huge office is not really needed by one person and partners are prepared to show leadership and humility by occupying in a modern way.

To understand these changes in more detail we asked 33 of our London-based clients 10 questions on the future of law, which raised some interesting points:

When asked if fee earners would ever sacrifice a full-time office for the freedom of mobile working, the survey gave a positive vote of 37.5 percent, reinforcing that, culturally, the cellular office is not going anywhere; however, these results were not unequivocal, and in time perhaps the requirement will change. In the same survey, 87.5 percent of responses confirmed that they believed the cellular office space for fee earners will further reduce over the next five years.

There are many arguments for an office: critical training relationships between senior and junior staff, client confidentiality of material and acoustic privacy, and more. These ideas face up to the long-term legacy of the need for an office that has been broken down by many U.K. firms with dynamic open plan practice floors. Even the notion of the mobile lawyer has been put into play by some.

So, if we accept this cultural difference that most U.S. firms will demand cellular space for their fee earners for the foreseeable future, what is the future of this space? Technology will be the driving factor for this environment and address the specific changes ahead. Three of the major components of a lawyer’s day are meetings, document review and reporting; technology is allowing this work to change in method and reducing the pressure on support staff.

The cellular office of the future

A high percentage of meetings are now held virtually at the fee earner’s desk. Video cameras and software platforms now allow high-quality meeting and collaboration processes to happen between parties, including clients and lawyers. This saves travel time for many people, can be immediate and a step further than a phone call. Our recent survey indicated that 37.5 percent of participating firms had full-time video conference desktop hardware in all fee earner offices. This number will continue to rise and everyone will need to communicate on the same platform and, for many clients, the telephone will not always be enough.

Paper has been a big part of the landscape of the lawyer’s office, but with fast scanning and digitising of documentation, alongside the growing accessibility of large format touch screen technology, it may not be long until lawyers do all of their document reviews on screen, moving items around on large screens like Tom Cruise in “Minority Report.” This sort of review could probably be already done on any tablet like computer, but going forward these screens will only get bigger and allow for more content to be viewed and manipulated simultaneously.

Working with a document review process could be the latest voice recognition software system that can quickly translate speech into text to mark up or even draft client documents. Potentially taking a process away from the secretarial support, or reversing it to take the role of final proofreading away from the fee earner?

Other types of technology will continue to accelerate and become even more focal in everyday working. The mobile device will continue to be able to do more and the transfer of information and communication will get better, faster and more virtual--all of which will make the working life of any professional more connected at all times with everything they need immediately.

Could this cellular office of the future be a shared, bookable space? If there is very little paper then surely any fee earner could use the space to ensure utilisation levels are kept up. A number of offices could be shared by a team of people to ensure your immediate colleagues are adjacent; there will always be an issue when everyone is in occupation, but perhaps mobility could find its way into this equation as demand for the opportunity to work from home ramps up and acceptance crosses its threshold.

As the big four accountancy firms now are actively growing their legal services offering, with some of these firms noting their ambition to be within the top 10 legal U.K. firms in five years, this will be interesting to watch from a working environment perspective and may even drive out further debate on what is possible for legal working. These firms are all huge global giants with very forward thinking approaches to the workplace that involve high mobility and agile working. How they aggressively grow their legal teams with lateral hires from law firms, and whether this requirement will stimulate any tweaks to their workplace culture to get the right people, we will watch with interest.

Matt is a Workplace Design Director and Practice Area Leader for Professional Service Firms in the EMEA region. His career has revolved around the progressive workplace with focus on design, and how this can be delivered to the project in the most appropriate way for the client. Matt has worked within the creative design of the workplace for 20 years, and been a part of many significant milestone projects in the industry including key step changes for large retailers, top legal firms and financial service providers. Contact him at matt_jackson@gensler.com.

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