27 May 2002
More than 45 representatives of leading firms attended a breakfast briefing a few weeks ago, co-sponsored by The Lawyer and entitled 'Wake up to the potential of your property'. They heard about the open-plan pilots at Allen & Overy (A&O), wireless technologies and managing change - all pointing to the benefits of facilitating and promoting collaboration. The subject was topical and so, in the medicinal sense, was the approach. What we were being asked to consider was yet another of those 'disruptive' notions that heralds fundamental change unless successfully resisted, resulting in, as one member of the audience put it, "reversion to type".
Rodney Barker, a consultant with architects firm HOK International, described the traditional office layout - rows of evenly sized boxes and long corridors across which lawyers perform their dance of authority to light-starved secretaries and paralegals. Then he spoke of tear-shaped desks, flat screens and shredders, all in an organic layout that visionary architect Gaudi might have been happy to work in. He recommended trying the idea on the IT department because they like to work together.
The A&O experiment has now extended to the projects practice, a department of 70, with many measurable benefits, particularly in terms of reduced support staff numbers. As to performance, there have certainly been no decline in earnings and perhaps a modest increase. Achieving efficiencies in space utilisation required the adoption of collaborative technology, another disruptive area in which A&O has led the way.
Speakers emphasised efficiency, flexibility, collaboration and the financial benefits that could be realised. Change, they said, is constant. Changes in the way we work are necessary to remain competitive, and if you do change, remember to involve the people.
We heard a lot about space and its utilisation, but nothing at all about 'inner space' and the human experience. Is this not the place to start shaping the best working methods and environment? Rather than ergonomics, consider organisational psychology. Rather than marketing objectives and billing targets, consider values and work/life aspirations and how those are realised and expressed in the organisation. After all, "people are not disturbed by things but the view they take of them" (Epictetus).
What makes it possible and even desirable to sit and work together is trust. Similar principles apply to the use of collaborative technologies. Such trust can only spring from a deep-rooted culture of collaboration. Like it or not, traditional practices are built on a culture of blame.
Lawyers are expected to be transparent in their dealings and client-facing technologies have driven that change in style. Clients want closer personal interaction with their advisers and legal service is becoming more client-centric - teams of mixed skills working together responding rapidly to client situations.
Collaboration and cooperation can be promoted and encouraged by the firm's stated aims and values, but can only be realised and experienced through the behaviour and conduct of members of the firm. How people deal with each other inside the firm and how they behave towards clients and others outside the firm should be consistent. They should offer the same courtesy, the same attention and the same care.
Home-working, shared workspaces, collaborative technologies - all these offer tremendous opportunity for sustainable growth and prosperity among law firms. However, any attempt at making changes that are not carried through the entire ethos of the firm, including the essential issue of reward, risk 'reversion to type' and failure.
At a recent Confederation of British Industry seminar hosted by Clifford Chance, at which its CliffordChanceConnect service was presented, the talk was of winning the 'war for talent' and making the most of that talent. Technology was rightly cast as a facilitator as well as a conduit for services that complemented or supplemented the resources of that crucial pool of intellectual capital.
What we should ultimately be concerned to do is to release and channel the individual and collective energies of every member of the firm. Get that right and you and your clients will enjoy the full personal and economic benefits of collaboration.