Are you sitting comfortably?

Linda Tsang looks at a selection of the UK's legal offices to see how ergonomic thinking has influenced the workplace. No one is immune from backache or neckache, whether they be high-flying barristers, senior partners in multinational legal practices, outdoor clerks or secretaries and support staff.

But despite the number of hours spent staring at a screen or on the telephone, most people do not consider what impact their working practices can have on them.

One common problem comes from stretch ing to reach a mouse instead of avoiding aches and pains by moving it to a more comfortable distance and angle.

Consideration should also be given to using headsets with telephones. With so many people spending time on the telephone, headsets can prevent hunching, which puts a strain on the neck and shoulders.

Ergonomics consultant Tom Stewart of System Concepts says: “One of the most important aspects of ergonomics is that people feel they have some control over their working environments.” He adds: “Sometimes it can be something incredibly simple which needs to be pointed out and changed or adjusted which will make a difference.” That can cover chairs, desks and screens at workstations.

Stewart is also worried that support staff, such as secretaries, may be overlooked at law firms because they are often shared by fee earners. He says good communication is needed to make sure their ergonomic needs are not overlooked and they are not overworked by too many bosses. He says: “It's not just about people working with technology to the best effect, it's also about people working with people.”

As a salutary warning, there is the tale of one secretary in a personal injury firm who considered making her own claim for repetitive strain injury (RSI) against her solicitor employers after she typed a client's RSI claim.

The Lawyer visited a cross-section of firms and chambers to see how they were facing up to the ergonomic challenge. On the following page is an analysis of how they fared.

Public law set: Blackstone Chambers

Background: Moved into new premises in Temple over the August bank holiday. Has 54 tenants and 10 clerks plus two typists and various support staff.

Situation: The reception area has recently been refurbished. The colour scheme owes a lot to trendy West End restaurant Coast or the capital's newly refurbished Commonwealth Club, but one client has already commented that the offices look like a very modern hospital.

Analysis: There was fierce competition among 20 chambers for this new building in Temple. Practice manager Julia Hornor had considerable input, together with a committee made up of a cross-section of the members and staff of the chambers, into how the refurbishment was carried out. The premises include a systems room, a disabled lift for one of the tenants, bookshelves in every corridor and a library with computer. The conference rooms have Eames chairs while the sixth-floor conference room also has a spectacular river view. The barristers chose their own furniture – one has a purple adjustable desk with a pink hairdresser's chair – but they do tend towards the ergonomic rather than the mere esoteric. The clerks' room is open-plan and light. Stewart noted the deep desks with the rounded edges. Because the paperless office is still a theory rather than a reality, there is enough room for papers to be put on the desks.

Overview: Overall, the chambers has made a good start in terms of ergonomic working, and it is certainly heading in the right direction.

Commercial firm: Cameron McKenna

Background: Moved in to the building in 1990 and has just taken over the sixth and seventh floors following Linklaters' departure in 1997. Has 600 fee earners and 450 support staff.

Situation: There are 31 conference rooms on the new floors. Outside each one are high-backed armchairs with a vase of red flowers, matching the upholstery, and sleek black telephones. Conference rooms have functional and useful mini trap-doors placed cunningly in the centre of the tables so that computer cables can be hidden safely out of sight and out of the way.

Analysis: There is a commitment to ergonomics with a one-hour induction training programme on the topic because, as ergonomics consultant Tom Stewart says: “It is an education process as much as anything else.” The firm has more than 10 trained assessors dealing with the different practice groups in terms of ergonomics. Stewart adds: “Backache is no respecter of status.” Stewart believes that even though good ergonomic practice has been forced upon employers by legal requirements, the psychological benefits are immeasurable. “It is difficult to separate the psychological and the physical aspects,” he says. “It is a matter of morale in the working environment and the perception of those working in it – some problems can be solved by what is already there.”

Overview: A study in how to do it properly – a firm of this size has the critical mass and the economies of scale to provide an optimum working environment including a coordinated blue canteen in the atrium (with matching blue irises on the tables).

London office of US firm: Weil Gotshal & Manges

Background: Moved to premises in 1997 from Bishopsgate, taking over two and a half floors. Has 80 fee earners and 60 support staff.

Situation: Reception area is towards the front of the glass-fronted building, which has blinds that automatically come down and angle according to the sunlight. The ultimate in functionality and the City professional's version of the industrial look. It also has an atrium with a very “Zen” pool where any of the staff can come to contemplate life, the universe and billing targets.

Analysis: The original move from Bishopsgate was because of pressure on space and the problem has returned with the current expansion of lawyer numbers. The floors are laid out in a horseshoe shape, but it is obvious there is increasing pressure on space. Senior partner Maurice Allen says consultants have visited the firm to advise on the optimum use of space and how it might be adapted. He says: “the firm is configured in the same way as a large firm but it need not be. The offices are not safe havens any more, the 10 conference rooms tend to be used as places to do research, and various spaces are not being used. It makes sense to reconsider the whole use of space, but the hardest bit is to win over hearts and minds.” The firm will decide on the consultants' proposals in the next three to four months.

Overview: The lack of space means changes are urgent, and the firm has made the right move by biting the bullet and getting in consultants.

Business crime firm: Peters & Peters

Background: Moved into its building off Hanover Square in the West End in the late 1960s. Recent expansion plans have seen the firm take over all five floors. Peters & Peters has 10 partners, eight assistants, three trainees and six paralegals – plus 33 support staff.

Situation: Major refurbishment is in progress, with the public areas just completed. The reception area has comfortable blue sofas and minimalist modern flower arrangements with a calming blue motif taking general precedence. Following the expansion and refurbishment there are now 10 conference rooms, including a seminar room which will play host to a a series of seminars lined up for next year. The uplighting in the conference rooms comes highly-recommended because it diffuses the lighting although it also has to be of a sufficient strength to enable the reading of documents.

Analysis: Stewart noted that there was input from a substantial cross-section of the firm relating to the refurbishment, which is presently continuing floor by floor. He says: “Ergonomics is all about making sure that things suit the people. It can be very varied.” Stewart says: “Whether it is an office or a factory with all the different equipment that entails, it is about helping people to live happily with technology, rather than simply being high-tech for the sake of it. It is all about suiting people and how they work to the work area – it is all very much to do with each individual.”

Overview: The firm is going in the right direction in terms of its changes.