Is open-plan working really the future for lawyers? Meet the evangelists
Ask lawyers about open-plan offices and the usual response is that they create an environment that is too noisy and distracting for serious legal work. Yet at 10.30 on a wintry Monday morning in the working floors of Pinsent Masons’ open-plan offices, there is hardly a sound. The office is only a third full, but is so quiet that not only would you have no trouble hearing yourself think, you would fancy you could almost hear other people think.
If noise is the biggest barrier stopping the whole legal profession going open plan, then there does not appear to be much of a barrier at all.
The space age
Although still spurned by the magic circle and the bigger City practices, more and more firms are embracing open plan. Addleshaw Goddard, Eversheds and Reynolds Porter Chamberlain (RPC) have all adopted them, while CMS Cameron McKenna was reported to have been considering joining the gang before pulling out of its move to Principal Place.
Cost saving is often touted as the main driver, but those responsible for pushing their firms into open plan are, more often than not, zealous defenders of the cultural and practical benefits that come with scrapping offices.
Of course, there can be no one way of working that suits everyone – what motivates some lawyers could well send others sprinting to recruitment agents – but open plan is catching on and there are mountains of academic research (albeit not specific to legal practice) backing its efficacy to a harmonious working environment.
So are firms that cling to cellular offices missing out?
In February 2011 Pinsents began moving into its new Central London home at 30 Crown Place: a sleek glass building that looks like a shark’s fin cutting through the City skyline. The landmark offices have already caught the eye of TV crews from shows such as The Apprentice, Spooks and Luther, and there was even talk about shooting part of the new James Bond film there.
Inside, Pinsents’ working floors are equally striking. The result of the firm’s foray into open plan is not relaxed and homely – the white, minimalist design and lingering ‘new’ smell create a sterility that nixes any chance of that; but the open layout of desks, the kitchens and breakout areas all combine to create an environment that is less studious than your average law office, like a toned-down version of Google’s or Facebook’s offices.
The layout of the workstations is a far cry from the battery hen-like arrangement many fear when they first hear the words ‘open plan’; it offers more privacy than one would expect, although it is still impossible to discern any hierarchy among the fee-earners.
Workstations are arranged in square bracket shapes, each housing four lawyers separated by head-height screens. In the workstations some seats are assigned to lawyers, while others are for hot-desking.
“We try to mix people up,” explains Martin Roberts, the firm’s head of office, who was responsible for the move into Crown Place. “For instance, at the moment I’m sat next to a young assistant who’s working on an international arbitration and there’s a trainee just behind me. On the other side of me is a hot desk, where a lawyer from our Manchester office is working. It’s a good way to get chatting to different people.”
“The decision to go open plan was a strategic one,” Roberts points out. “We were entering a 20-year lease and looking at the future of the firm and of legal business in general. We recognised that legal business would change massively in that period and we wanted to build in flexibility and make sure we were able to respond to change and create a modern, collaborative office.
“The decision wasn’t cost-driven. The difference between open plan and the standard cellular model [in terms of cost] is, frankly, minimal. If you’re fitting out open plan then you have to purchase new furniture and storage units, as well as building breakout areas, meeting rooms and quiet rooms. The only saving is not having to put up any walls.”
Although partners and staff were given a say on how the new office was designed, essentially Pinsents’ decision to go open plan was made by management. What McGrigors (which as The Lawyer went to press was in merger talks with Pinsents) will think of joining the open-plan movement is not known.
At Addleshaw Goddard and Eversheds, the decisions to go open plan were also made at the top. Asking lawyers to forgo offices is not a move that initially seems to attract much ground-level support.
“There are partners who’ve been here for 30 years and to whom the change seemed strange,” admits Ian Pigeon, head of client services at Addleshaws, which went open plan when it moved into offices in Milton Gate in 2009.
“But it’s not just partners,” he continues. “We had to think about associates who were dreaming of that corner office. We just tried to explain that there was so much more to gain than that from going open plan.”
Open and transparent
Indeed, moving lawyers out of offices and into open plan can be a surprisingly emotive subject for some. Extensive consultation with staff is a must if you want to minimise any backlash.
Roberts dedicated the best part of his 2010 to pouring over designs with a projects manager, architect and quantity surveyor, along with a six-person steering committee.
Work streams were also set up to look into every aspect of the new building: the workstations that make up the open-plan working areas were custom built and staff were even given 12 different types of chair to test before Roberts settled on one.
The result of the consultation, claims Roberts, is that the firm has been able to design-out the arguments used to battle open plan – the two biggest being noise and the ability to maintain clients’ confidentiality.
The first concern, noise, was dealt with by creating quiet rooms away from the workstations where lawyers can go to make phone calls or get some drafting done. The rooms are bare: 6ft x 6ft with just a phone, desk and chairs. The idea is to make the offices just the right side of unappealing so lawyers are not tempted to spend the entire day in them.
Each working floor also has a kitchen with a table large enough to seat a dozen people around it; adjacent to the work stations are breakout areas with sofas.
The firm has also wired speakers across the working floors that are capable of pumping out pink noise (best described as a sound that masks noise), but the firm has yet to use this facility. That said, lawyers at Pinsents have been known to retreat into their own world with the help of headphones every now and then, and Roberts describes approaching one lawyer and finding that he was listening to a recording of a river flowing while getting on with work.
Pinsents took on the confidentiality issues by instituting a clear desk policy. No documents are left lying around when fee-earners are not at their desks and lawyers have been given 10 linear metres of filing space each.
At the same time, the firm’s facilities department introduced Project DAM (Destroy, Archive, Move), which aims to cut linear filing space by almost two and half miles.
“We’ve used technology to minimise the arguments used against open plan,” says Roberts. “As result of all this we got more favourable reactions from staff than we expected.”
Walls come tumblin’ down
The Holy Grail for firms moving to open plan is to create a one-firm environment, with fee-earners in constant communication, sharing information and clients. More than one managing partner has stated that the increasing complexity and scale of deals undertaken by large firms has made redundant the idea of a solipsist lawyer sat in a room with their nose in a document.
“Lawyers need to work together,” agrees Eversheds managing partner Lee Ranson. “The old stereotype of the sole practitioner lawyer sitting in his office – that’s not how large commercial law firms want to interact with clients or teams anymore.”
When Eversheds moved into its offices at One Wood Street the firm was keen to explore alternatives to cellular offices, but stopped short of full open plan, opting for a studio concept whereby lawyers are arranged in two-, four-, six- or eight-person modules with adjustable glass screens that go all the way to the ceiling, offering varying degrees of privacy.
“The younger generation of lawyers wanted to see change more than anyone,” adds Ranson, arguing that, instead of trainees being cooped up in an office with one partner, by sitting next to lawyers of varying seniority they have the chance to pick up by osmosis a greater range perspectives and skills.
For years reports and studies have been saying open plan fosters better ommunication. The British Council of Offices’ 2011 Guide to Fit Out, which confirms a nationwide trend among businesses of adopting open plan, stated that open-plan offices “boost staff interaction, improve communication and increase the sharing of knowledge between colleagues”.
Reynolds Porter Chamberlain (RPC), an early adopter of open plan, having made the change six years ago, attests to this.
“When the firm researched open plan it saw the benefits in terms of culture as well as the efficiencies,” says Clint Evans, brand director at RPC. “But the whole concept is underpinned by teamwork. Lawyers are more likely to have snap meetings. The number of emails sent dropped by around 40 per cent when we went open plan. The whole place is like a water cooler.”
Still, it is telling that no magic circle firm has made the switch. Allen & Overy (A&O) did give it a try, but eventually went back to the cellular model when it moved into its Bishop Square offices.
“In our Wood Street overspill offices the projects department was open plan,” relates Andrew Clark, partner and general counsel at A&O. “And when we opened in Canary Wharf, knowing that we’d be moving our office to Bishop Square in a couple of years, we took the time to trial open plan and cellular models.”
The firm also trialled breakout areas with table football and other games, but found that after the first few days they went unused. According to Clark, lawyers were not too keen on being seen away from their desks.
“I think there were a lot of positives about open plan,” admits Clark. “You can see who’s around and it’s all very non-hierarchical; but what people weren’t so keen about is that lawyers regard themselves as cerebral, and if they’re drafting documents or whatever high levels of concentration are involved, and what effect does [open plan] have on that?”
Norton Rose also looked at going open plan before moving into its Riverside offices near London Bridge in 2006.
“We looked at all the options and consulted with staff,” says group chief operating officer Kevin Mortell. “But everyone wanted to stay cellular and we didn’t see much advantage to going open plan. The real issue was acoustic privacy. Not that the lawyers here come in every morning, shut their door and then leave in the evening, but they need privacy.
“The one advantage people say about open plan is that there’s communication, but there’s a trade-off.”
The trade-off is with concentration.
According to neuroscientist Dr Jack Lewis, who conducted a test for a Channel 4 programme in August 2011, “open-plan offices were designed with the idea that people can move around and interact freely to promote creative thinking and better problem-solving. But it doesn’t work like that. If you’re just getting into some work and a phone goes off in the background, it ruins what you’re concentrating on. Even though you’re not aware at the time, the brain responds to distractions.”
Likewise, a 2008 study by Australian academic Dr Vinesh Oommen collated data on open-plan offices from other surveys and studies and came to the conclusion that employees in open-plan environments suffered from a loss of privacy, loss of identity, low work productivity, various health issues, overstimulation and low job satisfaction.
But while these reports should not be ignored, it is worth noting that few were probably based on the experiences of law firms, which when they do embrace open plan invest enough money to ensure that their offices avoid ending up like call centres.
Nevertheless, there are still many reasons for firms not going open plan: some buildings are just not the right shape, for instance; and more to the point, there is no real way of testing whether open plan improves communication.
But the divide between the firms that have gone open plan and those that looked but said no (a rough pattern suggests that the more profitable a firm, the less likely it will be to go open plan), as well as the way they went about it (top down decisions vs vote), suggests that the biggest barrier is not anything tangible, such as noise, but is rather a perception of what being a lawyer is about.
Much like the billable hour, offices are something that lawyers are just very unwilling to give up.
Pink and you’ll miss it
Along with laptops and smart phones, one of the advances in technology that has made open plan a more palatable option for law firms is ‘pink noise’.
For those not in the know, pink noise is like white noise, but deeper. It sounds a bit like a faraway waterfall or an air-conditioner and drowns out distracting noises such as phone conversations.
When Reynolds Porter Chamberlain (RPC) went open plan it spent £95,000 (around £1 per sq ft) installing a pink noise system, with the pink noise being broadcast from hundreds of small speakers in the ceiling.
Pinsent Masons has wired speakers to pump out white noise in its working floors, but has yet to use it.
“It’s like hum,” says Clint Evans, head of brand and talent at RPC. “But you don’t notice it – all you notice is that you can’t hear conversations taking place around you.”
Nick Woolf, partner, Sainty Hird & Partners recruitment consultancy
“Obviously there are firms that have open-plan offices, but it’s something that we’re reticent to mention early on in the recruitment process. It’s not a selling point. I’ve never met anyone who says that they actually want to move into an open-plan office. Having your own office – that’s an incentive.”
Andrew Brecher, managing partner, Brecher (based in the West End)
“There’s only 50 of us [at the firm] and I don’t believe in open plan.
In our firm there are no more than two fee-earners in a room and certainly senior partners have their own room. We believe that what we do requires thought and confidentiality, and you can’t have the kinds of conversations you need to have in open plan.
For us it doesn’t work.
“Cost of space is the reason people are [moving to open plan]. If you asked a top-class lawyer from a top-class firm for their preference, I’d be flabbergasted if any opted for open plan.
“Lawyers in Central London are paying between £40 and £100 per sq ft. We have 50 people occupying around 8,000 sq ft. In theory we could have 80 people, but that would only save around £80,000-£100,000 a year, and I’d rather spend that on making sure our people are operating at their best. One mistake made by a lawyer could cost a lot more than those savings.”
City firm partner
“It doesn’t create the image of success that the firm’s aiming for. [Pinsents] is trying to move away from its mid-market reputation, but lawyers not having their own offices screams mid-market.”
Case study: George Davies
When Manchester firm George Davies was planning to move offices after 25 years in the same building, it asked its employees what they liked about their old shop. Upon discovering they liked nothing but the location, management decided to move 500ft away and start the fit-out with a blank page.
The firm moved to new offices in New York Street in September 2010 and has not only shunned offices and partitions, but has also implemented a ‘warm desking’ policy, whereby lawyers have no fixed space and partners are forbidden from sitting at the same desk for two days running.
“We’ve gone from 15,000 inefficient sq ft to 9,000 efficient sq ft,” says managing partner Mark Hovell, whose firm pays £19 per sq ft for the central Manchester office. “It’s a very modern building on the eighth floor, with great views. We’ve given the best bits of the floor to the clients and the worst to central filing.
“We have one less computer than there are people on each desk. In our busiest times we have 70 per cent of total lawyers in on one day. It’s the way it should be – people should be out meeting clients. Also, because partners can’t sit in the same seat for two days in a row, it forces them to talk to a lot of different people. It’s made people more collegiate.
“And people don’t dabble so much now. Before, a corporate partner might have been tempted to advise a client on a personal guarantee, but now they’ll just go to the banking team and ask them to do it. It’s about giving right work to right person, which helps with risk and insurance claims.
“On like-on-like figures, this business has grown since we’ve moved by between 10 and 12 per cent each month on productivity, and there’s more cross-selling,and that’s beginning to hit the top line.”
Even at the firm’s old offices, the fit-out was part open plan and, according to Hovell, you can usually spot the lawyers who would not fit into the environment.
“It’s always been our culture to be collegiate,” he says. “I’ve been involved in recruitment, and you can spot the people that wouldn’t work here. Some lawyers are arrogant and like the status that comes with an office. What we’ve seen in this recession is some lawyers finding it hard to live in the real world. No one cares if you’re a lawyer now – you’re just a businessperson selling legal services.”