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The need for privacy and other trends in office design for law firms

Posted on July 2, 2016 by Fresh Workspace

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Fit-out-1If you want to understand an organisation, take a look at the place it calls home. Offices by their very nature reflect what goes on inside them and how the organisation sees itself. And when an organisation changes, so too does its workplace. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the design of the offices of law firms, which have been transformed in recent years to help practices become leaner and more competitive and to address structural changes in the market for legal services. The most prominent of these was the Legal Services Act of 2007 which was rolled out over subsequent years and quickly started to reshape the UK market, increasing the number of legal services available as commodities and through the Internet while at the same time making established firms look at their own businesses to convey the added value services they offer.

These changes have reshaped the way legal practices work. From the way they provide services to the way they recruit and retain staff. From the way they manage information to the way they use technology. From how they work to where they work.

Because the office is typically the second largest item of expenditure on the balance sheet, it is essential to make the right decisions about how to keep its associated costs down and get the most from it. So not only have law firms developed a greater focus on property efficiencies as a result, they have also become increasingly aware of how the workplace can add value by conveying an image, helping to recruit and retain staff and engage with clients and introduce new working practices.

The most obvious manifestation of this is in the move away from cellular offices the open plan. Not only does this change offer potential savings in terms of floor space, physical infrastructure and energy costs, open plan offices can play an important role in bringing people together in teams and improving the flow of many types of information and know-how around the organisation.

However, the role and nature of law firms also means there is a balance to be struck between openness and ensuring appropriate levels of privacy, especially for people who are working on confidential information or who need to minimise background noise and other distractions. So a pragmatic approach is essential.

A similar balance is essential when it comes to the provision workstations. Sophisticated survey tools and planning models now exist which can help law firms to decide whether it is necessary to provide a workstation for each employee. With the growing proportion of time fee earners and other employees now spend away from the office, especially working from home or on client premises, it is possible to free up valuable desk space by encouraging a more flexible working culture within the office with people moving to the most appropriate space for whatever task they are engaged in. Again, however, this must be weighed up against a wide range of considerations depending on cultural and practical criteria.

Similarly, the advent of new technology and new flexible working methodologies also means there is no longer an absolute need for firms to coalesce in proximity to courts and to the city headquarters of corporate clients although there may be sound business reasons to continue to do so. Firms are free to choose where they work and how they work to take advantage of lower rents, different types of office or favourable lease conditions. Of course, it is possible to specify different working environments for different parts of the business.

Whatever decisions are made about where and how to work, it is essential to remember that at the heart of the changing workplace are the people that inhabit it. And no contemporary business sector is more reliant on people than the legal sector where the war for talent continues unabated. The service that firms offer to their clients is almost totally reliant on the expertise and experience of the people they employ.

It remains important that firms can attract and retain the best staff. This goes beyond offering the right salaries. It incorporates a package of benefits and considerations including the need for status, career growth and training, work-life balance, location and a strong sense of self-worth. Each of these considerations must be reflected in the physical space the firm occupies. For some firms this may include providing on-site gym facilities, for others policies on flexible working with the infrastructure and workplaces needed to support them. Whatever decision is taken about the shape and nature of the workplace should strike the right balance and ensure that the office is tailored to the precise needs of the organisation so that not only does it keep costs down, it adds value to what the firm does.