Should Lawyers Learn to Share?

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The nature of work has evolved – but while Activity Based Work suits creatives and dotcom conglomerates, how can more traditional sectors keep up? And should they?

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The concept of Activity Based Working (ABW), or the idea that offices should be designed to support and optimise work activities rather than workers’ own personal space, has soared in popularity. Research has suggested that the style promotes productivity, corporate diversification, shared ideas and skills, and general physical and mental health. Generally, the design involves a mixture of team desks, quiet concentration rooms, telephone booths, meeting rooms, brainstorming areas, or stand up workstations. Workers’ days are made up of various activities – and through ABW, design would meet and match each activity. But does this way of working suit more traditional trades?

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Still seeped in tradition and custom, law firms are probably the least likely candidates to adopt a more flexible, adaptable work practice. The design of most law firms is based on a model that has been in existence for over 100 years. But arguably, it could be the key to setting themselves apart – and indeed, drive greater business and a more productive, powerful and modern legal practice. Law firms are part of an increasingly value-based economy and need to reinvent how they operate and how they use and interpret space.

In an address at the 6th Annual Janders Dean Knowledge and Innovation Conference in 2012, Geyer CEO Ivan Ross said law firms were lagging behind most other industries in their strategic use of space. This is, in part because of some significant constraints on how the profession functions.

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“Status, visual confidentiality, the difficulty of eliminating paper and the fact that quite working still represents the majority of most lawyer’s time, have all impacted workplaces design,” he said. “Status is the biggest constraint and space is a very tangible indicator of status. Lawyers in large firms have generally been groomed to expect impressive office space as a reward and recognition for high performance. Because of these constraints, law firms have shied away from adopting new strategic floor plans and work styles.”

Law firms are now starting to adopt best practice working: moving individual offices away from the windows, reducing office sizes to provide collaborative spaces and implementing some level of open-plan, although generally for support services, paralegals and more junior lawyers. Only a handful of firms have progressed this to senior lawyers and partners.

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For Ross, new ways of working, depending on how adventurous the approach, can foster productivity, without an increase in costs, and even a reduction in cost in some cases. “Based on a study of large law firms in the UK*, the value of lawyers time is anywhere from 10 – 20x the cost of the space they occupy. So if you focus only on cost and adopt a compromised workplace solution that risks productivity of your people by even 1 or 2%, it can wipe out any real estate savings,” he said.

An interesting example more innovative law firm design is Aickin Chambers in Melbourne. Designed by Carr Design, the space incorporates switchable i-glass lighting technology, which allows a glass meeting room to be transparent and open for collaborative team meetings, but frosts over for full privacy when required. A ‘virtual’ reception has been installed, allowing barristers’ executive assistant to focus purely on legal secretarial duties. Visiting clients register on a touch screen, which then notifies the barrister’s assistant. However – while the public spaces were reimagined, marrying necessary customs with innovative technology, each barrister maintained their own private suite.

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Ross believed that while full ABW is probably not the greatest design solution for lawyers – a slightly more collaborative approach could well be beneficial. “Space can be used to increase connections without having to be completely open plan if you position those with the knowledge and skills you want to be shared with those you want to receive it,” he said. “Shared offices, neighbourhoods, and spaces which create opportunities to interact outside normal groups encourage tacit knowledge transfer without having to go all the way to full Activity Based Working.”

 

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