Changing rooms

Andrew Talbot says US firms in London are discovering the advantages of a well-designed office

London has long been the springboard into the European market for US law firms, and most have now been here for more than five years. As a result, firms are typically moving to their second or third-generation of space. As US firms are competing head to head with the ‘locals’ by hiring teams of UK lawyers, increasingly, transatlantic practices regard the quality of their workspace as an important recruiting factor.

New York’s Debevoise & Plimpton has not only been busy in terms of hiring lawyers, but also recently remodelled and expanded its space at London’s Tower 42. The two floors in the heart of the City have now expanded to 3,500 square metres, housing three floors of lawyers’ offices, a first-class conference suite and an effective support services floor. Despite differences in scale, the quality of the firm’s London space is now on a par with its New York headquarters’ services and amenities.

The biggest contrast between US and UK law firms’ design is largely size and utilisation of space. As a result of higher property costs and the associate system in the UK, double occupancy for partners’ offices has been the norm in this country, as opposed to a US firm where a partner will have one office all to themselves.

Also, the huge variation in lease costs – approximately £30 per sq ft in New York as opposed to £60-£70 per sq ft including rates in the City of London – make the large US law firm offices difficult, and expensive, to replicate.

Overall in the UK, law firms seem to be more open to new thinking and are more willing to go into uncharted territory. In fact, most law firms in the UK these days will consider introducing alternative ways of working, including having open-plan offices, although lawyers are still hesitant of taking challenges like this to a larger scale. This is due to the advisory nature of their services and the fact that recruiting the best staff is competitive enough without offering somewhat ‘experimental’ space. This is, however, gradually evolving.

Higher now on the design agenda are amenities for staff, informal breakout areas and strategic use of space. Olswang and Covington & Burling in the UK recently recognised these as big pluses in their quest for recruitment and retention of the best talent, as well as for increasing opportunities for knowledge sharing.

Andrew Talbot is vice president at Gensler Architecture Design and Planning Worldwide