If you want to understand an organisation, take a look at the place it calls home. Offices by their very nature reflect what goes on inside them and how the organisation sees itself. And when an organisation changes, so too does its workplace. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the office designs of law firms, which have been transformed in recent years to help practices become leaner and more competitive and to address structural changes in the market for legal services.
The most prominent of these is the Legal Services Act of 2007 which came into force this year and has already started to reshape the UK market, increasing the number of legal services available as commodities while at the same time making established firms look at the added value services they offer. Competition is also likely to increase as firms adapt to a changing Legal Aid framework in the near future.
These changes have already started to reshape the way legal practices work. From the way they provide services to how they recruit and retain staff, manage information and use technology. From how they work to where they work.
Because the office is typically the second largest item of expenditure on the balance sheet, it is essential to extract the most value from it as an asset and to manage its associated costs accordingly. So not only have law firms developed a greater focus on property efficiencies as a result, they have also become increasingly aware of how the workplace can add value by helping to recruit and retain staff, engage with clients, introduce new working practices and represent the brand.
The most obvious manifestation of this is in the move away from cellular offices to open plan as an office design choice. Not only does this shift offer potential savings in terms of floor space, physical infrastructure and energy costs, open plan offices can play an important role in bringing people together in teams and improving the flow of information and knowledge around the organisation too.
However, the role and nature of law firms also means there is a balance to be struck between openness and ensuring the appropriate levels of privacy, especially for people working on confidential information or who need to minimise background noise and other distractions.
A similar balance is essential when it comes to the provision of workstations. Sophisticated survey tools and planning models now exist which can help law firms to decide whether it is necessary to provide a workstation for each employee. With the growing proportion of time fee earners and other employees now spend away from the office, especially working from home or on client premises, it is possible to free up valuable desk space by encouraging a more flexible working culture with desk sharing and people moving to the most appropriate space for the task they’re doing.
Similarly, the advent of new technology and flexible working methodologies also means there is no longer an absolute need for firms to coalesce in proximity to courts and to the city headquarters of corporate clients, although there may be sound business reasons to continue to do so. Firms are free to choose where and how they work to take advantage of lower rents, different types of office or favourable lease conditions. It is possible, and often necessary, to specify different working environments for different parts of the business. Already we are seeing legal practices take advantage of more cost effective out-of-town offices for back office support teams, reserving premium rents and statement interiors for the main fee earners and client meeting suites.
Whatever decisions are made about where and how to work, it is essential to remember that at the heart of the changing workplace are the people that inhabit it. And no business sector is more reliant on people than the legal sector where the war for talent continues unabated by the economic downturn. The need for firms to attract and retain the best staff goes beyond salary and is as much addressed by working environment and culture as it is the financial benefits of bonuses, cars, health plans and gym membership.
In today’s climate, law firms need the flexibility to respond to the ever competitive needs of the market and a shift in mentality, treating office space as an asset not an overhead, can go a long way to deliver potential cost savings and a change to working practices too. Firms with a clear eye on the competition will already be looking at new ways to make every square foot count.
Ten trends transforming the way law firms use office space:
- An ongoing focus on providing facilities that comply with all legal requirements
- Clients using the law firm’s office as a home from home – it is imperative they can book and use space and have easy access to technology, as readily as employees
- A move to greater openness and collaboration in the way we work, reflected in the shift to open plan and shared cellular offices as an office design choice
- Create an office interior design with a greater use of breakout spaces and quiet areas to offer privacy, confidentiality or just the opportunity to take time out
- A large number of people working flexibly, be that in relation to their working hours, the spaces they use or the location they do it in
- Fewer secretarial staff as a result of changing technology and working practices, which frees up space for other uses. In most cases there are now between two to three fee earners per secretary
- A move to more shared resources such as storage and centralised information and print services rather than department-specific facilities
- An increasingly competitive market has helped law firms accept that image and office environment play a very important role in attracting and retaining the best staff and clients and that the office interior design of a firm’s workplace should reflect a its values
- A focus on reducing overheads. With office moves being an expensive exercise, law firms are increasingly looking at ways to unlock additional square footage in their existing space. Typically from now vacant, forgotten and under-utilised spaces, such as store rooms, plant rooms or former administrative areas.
- An acceptance that different tasks often require different work settings – we’re seeing a greater variety of workplace styles within an office interior design.