Just as firms have been grappling with the billable hour for the past decade, the coming decade may be marked by the struggle to redefine the legal workplace. Office rent has been the second largest expense for law firms. Firms outside the US have already made significant strides in developing innovative space strategies. While cost reduction may be the primary incentive to reinvent the law office, firms should not overlook this as an opportunity to create "knowledge enabling" work environments. Ivan Ross, CEO of Geyer Architects, gave a presentation at the 2013 Janders Dean Knowledge Management Conference in Sydney, Australia, explaining how space planning can be a powerful lever to drive knowledge management strategies and cultural change.1
Technology is Driving the Revolution, but is also Part of the Problem
Virtual networks, smartphones, and laptops have created a generation of "road warriors" who can work in transit, at client sites, from a ballpark, from hotel rooms, or from home. Technology has dramatically impacted space needs, and firms have largely responded by consolidating their existing footprint but not trying to reinvent the entire concept of the law office.
Tech savvy lawyers, intuitive software, voice mail, cell phones, and anytime and anywhere access to clients have dramatically reduced secretarial staffing ratios. Aisles of secretarial stations and walls and rooms of file storage are receding from the landscape. Digital research resources have reduced the footprint of libraries. Administrative functions such as Human Resources, IT, and Accounting can be moved to locations across town or across the country to save money.
Diversity initiatives have encouraged law firms to accommodate flexible work schedules and to allow lawyers to work from home.
It is estimated that on an average day 30 to 40 percent of a firm's lawyers are not in their home office. The chronic mobility has compromised mentoring, skill building, and face-to-face relationships that are the basis of knowledge sharing and the glue of firm culture.
Technology as Both Enabler and Impediment to Knowledge Sharing
Technology has enabled the sharing of explicit knowledge through the development of knowledge bases, clause banks and expert systems, virtual networks, intranets, and extranets. Technology and pervasive mobility have impaired the sharing of tacit knowledge, the indefinable expertise held by each individual lawyer. A study by the Herman Miller Company describes tacit knowledge as knowledge that can't be stored in a database. It is "acquired without the use of language, by observation, imitation, and practice."2 If you were to ask most lawyers where knowledge was stored at their law firm they are likely to say "in people heads." What's a law firm to do?
Impediments to Change
Status. The single most important driver of law firm design has been "status." The proverbial large, private, corner office with solid walls and a closed door guarded by "gatekeeper" secretary is not a model which invites teamwork and knowledge sharing.
Focus and Confidentiality. Lawyers legitimately fear that more open environments will impair their ability to focus and compromise client confidentiality. Innovative law firms, collaborating with expert architects and designers, have already designed more open models and design elements that address these concerns.
The architectural and design firm Gensler recently released a report on law firm space planning "Substance over Status: Justifying Change."3 One of the key findings is that: "Legal teams are replacing individual stars. Clients judge law firms by teams not just one lawyer. Law firms have to recognize the importance of teams in supporting large complex matters across multiple time zones."
The Key Concepts of Gensler's ReDesign Law Initiative
Gensler, in collaboration with Thomson Reuters and other organizations, debuted an innovative "Law Office of the Future" at the 2014 Association of Legal Administrators Meeting in Toronto.
The ReDesign Law Concepts are:
- Less is more. Smaller offices, more interior offices.
- Build more variety and choice into people's work environment. Gensler's workplace study indicated that there is a 12 percent increase in productivity when people have workspace choices.
- Future-proof your environment. Create space that can expand, contract, and be reconfigured as needed.
- Ubiquitous technology enhances collaboration and mobility.
- Connect the Dots. Face-to-face interactions still build social capital.
- One size doesn't fit all. Find the workplace strategy that works for your firm.
Concepts for Knowledge Enabling Design4
Open Plan. "Open plan" is the generic term describing any floor plan that makes use of large, open spaces, which may include high and low partitions and minimizes the use of private offices. A properly designed open plan office can foster ambient awareness and teamwork.
Universal Office Size. Single size offices not only offer dramatic cost savings, but they communicate collegiality and de-emphasize status, which in turn supports a culture of knowledge sharing.
Hoteling. Lawyers and staff can reserve specific locations in an open plan office.
Hot Desking. Lawyers and staff don't have dedicated workspaces. They choose from available offices or workstations when they arrive. This assures continual exposure of lawyers and staff to other lawyers working on new issues with different work styles and expertise.
Offices Moved to the Center. An alternative to "open plan" is moving offices away from the windows into the center of the floor. This creates common collaboration areas between the offices and the windows. Moving partners to the middle automatically makes them more accessible which enhances knowledge sharing.
Glass. Transparent walls and doors immediately communicate valuable information about whether a lawyer is in the office, on the phone or in a good mood. Glass implicitly encourages more interaction and suggests a more open culture.
Studios. Groupings of two, four, six, or eight attorneys or team members who benefit from working in proximity to each other.
Quiet Rooms. Small rooms in an open plan environment designed for temporary relocation for private phone calls or focused work.
Media Stations. Democratized teleconferencing stations which accommodate small groups and provide a wall of screens showing participants in other locations.
Pink Noise. "Pink noise" is an acoustic technology that creates an ambient sound, which drowns out distracting noises such as phone conversations.
Genius Bar. A concept taken from the Apple Store which provides a dedicated workstation where lawyers can receive training or have a face to face consultation with a technology or research expert.
Flexible Furnishings and Walls. Easily expand and contract based on staff and project needs.
Coffee Bars and Commons. High traffic, informal social spaces designed to facilitate chance meetings and casual face-to-face contacts, which build relationships and enhance knowledge sharing.
UK and Australia Out in Front
According to a survey conducted by The Lawyer, more than one-third of UK law firms have already moved to open plan space.5 Open plan firms report a variety of benefits depending on the redesign features and cultural expectations of the firms.
The law firm Eversheds adopted the studio concept and reports that by placing new lawyers in close proximity to lawyers with various levels of seniority, they absorbed a greater range of perspectives and skills.
Reynolds Porter Chamberlain reports that after they moved to "open plan" the number of emails dropped by 40 percent. Lawyers suddenly found it was easier to talk directly to their colleagues and to call impromptu meetings.
The Manchester firm George Davies, after moving to open plan, mandated that partners can't sit in the same location two days in a row. This strategy forces partners to interact with a larger group of lawyers and gives younger lawyers the chance to observe and interact with a variety of partners. They also noted that in the open plan environment lawyers stopped "dabbling" outside their practice areas and referred more work to colleagues with greater expertise.
Brisbane law firm Gadens moved partners to the middle of open plan workspace as a reflection of the friendly open culture of the firm. They allowed firm culture to drive an open design. Even though many partners gave up window offices with spectacular views, the redesign has been embraced as an overwhelming success.
A common theme in each of these anecdotes is that each firm developed a unique and culturally appropriate strategy to encourage knowledge sharing after they moved from traditional offices to the open plan environment.
US Firms Gearing Up to ReDesign Law Firm Space
Gensler's Steve Martin reports that while US firms are still largely resistant to a full "open plan" design, some firms have begun to break with some traditional conventions of law firm design. One Am Law 100 firm has merged some public and private spaces. Rather than meeting alone in a conference room, partners have the option to bring clients in to an appealing public café type space that includes a fireplace within the firm where they can have their meeting. The ambience of this space facilitates casual introductions to other lawyers. The firm reports that this has enhanced cross selling opportunities and that some clients now request to meet in the café rather than the conference room.
According to Martin one of the unique challenges in designing law firm space is providing the right balance between private and collaborative space. The knowledge enabled productivity and financial rewards of radically redesigning law office space promise to be significant for law firms that have the courage to change.
1. "Designing Physical Spaces as a Knowledge Management and Collaboration Tool," Geyer.
2. "Making Room for Collaboration," Herman Miller Company.
3. "Substance over Status: Justifying Change," Gensler.
4. "Knowledge Management Feng Shui: Designing Knowledge Sharing-Friendly Office Space," By Marc Steinlin, KM4Df Journal; 1:108-112.
5. "Nowhere to Hide," The Lawyer, February 6, 2012.
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