Focus: Art in the Office The art of legal practice

As more lawyers jazz up the office and wow their clients with artwork, Linda Tsang investigates the buying game. Linda Tsang is a freelance journalist. Visitors to the art gallery of Holborn firm Collyer-Bristow will be met this month by a dancing nude woman and a large chicken. Fowl Play, a picture by Claire Burbridge, is just one of the sights which will greet clients – and in terms of capturing client interest it certainly beats the usual water cooler and reception desk.

The picture is part of the London firm's summer exhibition which reshows some of the most popular artists exhibited in the past five years. The gallery was set up in 1992 to reflect the partners' “keen interest” in art and holds between four and eight exhibitions each year.

But firms do not have to take the step of opening a commercial gallery to enjoy more challenging art in the workplace or, following the Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine, make the walls more interesting by forking out over £40,000 on hand-painted wallpaper then covering it with artwork from various national galleries.

Instead, an optimum time to reconsider artwork is during an office move. This is what City firm Linklaters did when it moved lock, stock, barrel and paintings to offices at One Silk Street last year. Partner and art committee member Nigel Reed says the firm enjoyed the luxury of preparation. “The key was planning the move and with a lead time of about two years we could plan everything well in advance,” he says. “Everything came on time so there were no problems – the pictures were moved in before most of the furniture.”

With more public areas in the new office, Linklaters could also commission artworks for specific spaces, and after talks with art consultant Linnet Feilding, of Lynne Stern Linnet Feilding, it asked artists and sculptors to produce drafts or models of work for consideration.

One of its more striking commissions is a glass screen by Graham Jones which forms almost one wall of the reception area. Aside from flooding the area with natural light, the piece has also become a talking point; one client was overheard saying he would like “at least one of those in the kitchen”.

Although the firm's art committee (“it sounds more formal than it is”, says Reed) oversees the purchase and supervision of art, Reed says that to save time its art consultant advised on the move to new offices and on commissioning new work. And the good news for the artists is that even those on the shortlist for the main reception showpiece sculpture sufficiently impressed the committee for it to commission works for the lift area – a bubble rising in glass as the lift ascends by Tony Burke and figures by Sarah Toombs.

Although the sculpture in the main reception, Silent Shadow by Ann Christopher plus an imaginary landscape of the buildings linked to Linklaters and of the City by former architect Carl Laubin, are newly commissioned for the area, staff are also being taken by surprise by existing works being displayed literally in a new light. Reed says displaying existing works in bigger, brighter areas has had lawyers asking if the committee has bought more items.

And Linklaters has not only been applauded by staff; in May the firm was highly commended in a corporate art competition run by International Art Consultants.

Linklaters' success has not been by chance. As Feilding points out, selecting work for a professional firm is time-consuming and specialised. “One must be aware of what is available, aware of whether the price is reasonable and above all eliminate that which will not stand the test of time or stand up to the scrutiny of visitors,” she says. “A good art consultant will do all this. We guide our clients and always show the options available.”

But although buying art may seem an aesthetic investment, it can also prove an expensive mistake – a painting which looked wonderful in the gallery may not suit the firm or hanging space and could even horrify clients.

One way to avoid disaster is to follow the example of Pinsent Curtis' London office. Managing partner Graeme Brister used his five-figure budget to hold an exhibition of paintings by a range of artists, from Royal Academician John Brackley to Russian artist Sergei Chepik. On loan from the Catto Gallery, the paintings hung in the office more than five or six weeks before staff decided which they wanted to keep.

Brister says this was “a deliberate attempt to get away from bland art and get artists who are more challenging”. It was also supposed to be fun, with an evening set aside for the office to view the paintings and put forward comments and critiques. Brister adds: “The interesting thing was that some of the paintings were extremely challenging in subject matter. Some which may be considered inappropriate for a law firm – such as a nude reclining figure – were deliberately mixed in with others to gauge the reaction, which led to polarised but generally positive opinions.”

And it is not just solicitors who are experimenting. Since moving from 5 King's Bench Walk to 18 Red Lion Court almost six months ago, the set of Anthony Arlidge QC has rented a range of paintings with an option to buy. The current selection includes a series of works based on incarceration by artist Caroline Clare Green, landscapes, and more abstract works from London's Central Saint Martin's College of Art and Design. Practice manager Penny Cook, who handled the selection of works with the chambers head, says: “It is an excellent idea to live with the paintings for at least a six-month period.”

But whether you are leasing, buying or just dabbling, there are a number of questions to ask. First, who are you buying for? It is important to recognise it is not simply a case of finding something decorative or acceptable and thinking of the space you have to play with. Another big consideration is cost; check out additional costs such as hanging charges and additional lighting. Also determine whether leasing is an easy way out or an expensive way of putting off decisions.

As Feilding says: “It is a myth that art consultants are expensive. If the art consultant takes time to get to know their client and to take them through the stages of selecting, a sensible client will then stand behind those choices in what is, of course, a subjective matter – it is not possible, or wise, to please everybody.”

For groundwork in this area, a useful guide is Galleries, covering art galleries and exhibitions in the UK.

And whether it is a committee or an individual who chooses the artworks, it is useful to get some public reaction to avoid the individual or group being pilloried. But since lawyers are notorious for not even being able to agree on what coffee to use in the office machine, keeping everyone happy on an issue like art may be a tortuous task.