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Law Office Management: November 2006

|Written By Kevin Marron
Law Office Management: November 2006

Law firms abandon their old style for new, modern approach to managing their office layout.

If someone wanders into the new Calgary office of Osler Hoskin & Harcourt LLP and mistakes it for an advertising agency, managing partner Tris Mallett will feel that his firm’s design concepts are a success.

“It’s not your grandfather’s law firm,” he says, pointing out that visitors will see flat panel television screens on the walls rather than mahogany or old portraits. “You walk in and you’re not sure what kind of a business it is . . . but it’s very smart space and you assume that the people who designed it and work here are smart people. That’s the hope.”

It’s a hope that he shares with many law firm leaders, as large firms are now vying with one another in designing or redesigning their offices to look like they are not law offices.

They are tearing out swag curtains and dark wood paneling, replacing them with soft colours, light wood, and glass. They’re getting rid of the luxurious corner offices with big executive desks and cosy visitors’ chairs to make way for airy, open, high-tech client centres, together with smaller, more efficient lawyers’ offices that are — in keeping with the non-hierarchical spirit of today’s law firms — all the same size.

Moving into a new office or redesigning an old one represents a huge opportunity for firms to re-brand themselves or reinforce their existing brand — to create a décor and a working environment that reflects who they are and how they want to be perceived.

In the past, the statement that many firms wanted to make was that they were conservative, long established, traditional, and trustworthy. They wanted visitors to feel cosy, but perhaps a little overawed in an opulent and hallowed space — hence the dark wood and old portraits. Now that traditional décor has become something of an embarrassment for business law firms striving to appear progressive, flexible, efficient, and egalitarian.

As Toronto-based Keith Cassidy, executive director of McMillan Binch Mendelsohn LLP, puts it: “Space is part of our branding.” And, he adds, this branding is about attracting and retaining the brightest and best people, as well as appealing to clients.

McMillan Binch heralded its December 2003 move into state-of-the-art quarters at downtown Toronto’s BCE Place as “establishing new standards for the modern office.” Be that as it may, other Bay Street firms are anxious to show that their offices are every bit as progressive, client-friendly, and attractive to hip young lawyers.

“The big firms don’t want to be outdone by the others. Everyone wants to be part of a progressive organization, rather than one that’s stymied in the past,” says Graeme Young, vice-president in the commercial division at Colliers International. He’s one of many real estate consultants who has been kept busy in the past few years advising law firms on how to make the right move.

It’s not just about branding. Law firms are finding that they need to re-configure their space to compete with one another in providing the best possible service and amenities for clients. They need to make changes to accommodate and take advantage of the latest technology. They are looking for new ways of utilizing their working spaces to facilitate teamwork and practice groups. And, with the ever-escalating cost of prime office space, they are also looking to cut costs wherever it makes sense to do so.

The rising cost of real estate, particularly in areas such as downtown Toronto, is “a gigantic one they all wrestle with,” says Young, noting that everyone wants to get away with spending as little as possible to achieve what they want to achieve. At the same time, he adds, “If they can make a more efficient organization by hiring the best people and generating the most dollars by spending an extra couple of dollars, that’s a return-on-investment decision.”

Like many other firms, McMillan Binch now has one floor that is dedicated to client services, with a single reception area, well-appointed board rooms, lounges, and the latest in high-tech support. It is comfortable, spacious, and flexible so that it can be adapted to meet different needs now and in the future, says Cassidy.
Alex Mesbur, a partner and member of the space planning group in the Toronto office of Blaney McMurtry LLP, says his firm also put a substantial part of its overall build-out budget into its client centre when it moved into a new downtown office tower two years ago. “It wasn’t to make a flashy statement. It was to give the clients a clear sense that this is a fresh, forward-looking, sophisticated new space that is very client driven.”

Sharon Mitchell, Toronto-based chief operating officer at Gowling Lafleur Henderson LLP says law firms have to be cost conscious, even though they want to provide employees and clients with the best possible amenities. “We had to make sure that people felt this was classy and something they could be proud of. But we don’t want clients saying, ‘Oh my God, this must have cost you zillions of dollars.’”

Gowlings moved into new Toronto offices at First Canadian Place a year ago, bringing lawyers and staff together from two separate office buildings, following a merger with Smith Lyons LLP. Partly because of economies of scale achieved by the merger, but also by applying new concepts in office design, the firm was able to cut its space requirements substantially from 210,000 square feet to 170,000.

A key way in which law firms are now improving efficiency and cutting costs is by standardizing the size of lawyers’ offices, typically cutting them all down to 10 feet by 15 feet. This makes it possible to move individual lawyers or entire practice groups very easily from one part of the building to another whenever the need arises.

It gets rid of most of the office politics around who gets the nicer offices, according to Mesbur, who says he was pleasantly surprised at how readily partners in his firm agreed to the change. Costs were a huge factor in this decision, he adds, noting that every additional square foot of office space in downtown Toronto can add up to $70 a year to the lease. “A lot of people say, ‘Gee, I’d like to have a big office. But I don’t want to spend thousands and thousands of dollars a year just for that privilege.’”

Also, the trade off is that lawyers enjoy the benefit of having more project rooms, break-out rooms, and small meeting rooms on their own floor. In this way, standardizing office size not only contributes to a more egalitarian, less hierarchical culture, it also encourages more teamwork and social interaction in attractive and comfortable common areas of the building.

In other markets where space is not so scarce and expensive as it is in downtown Toronto or Calgary, law firms are not under the same pressure to squeeze every possible advantage out of every square foot. Fillmore Riley LLP in Winnipeg, for example, looked at various options before it recently renewed its lease in its present downtown building and concluded, according to managing partner Glen Peters, “there were a few efficiencies we could have achieved with new space, but economic and practical considerations in our market overwhelmingly favoured staying where we were with appropriate refurbishing and upgrades.

“We have been able to achieve a modernized, efficient work environment with emphasis on maximizing space utilization, accommodating technology advances, and creating meeting and boardrooms of various sizes that match our practice needs,” says Peters.

“The affordability of downtown Class A space in the Winnipeg market allows us the fortunate combination of comfortable, high-end premises, proximate to our corporate and institutional clients, along with a relatively low overhead essential to servicing our small business and individual client base.”

While many of the new concepts in law office design are particularly applicable to large firms, smaller firms or regional offices of large firms are borrowing many of the concepts. The Oslers office in Calgary, for example, accommodates about 60 people altogether on two-and-a-half floors, so it would make no sense to devote an entire floor to a client centre. Nevertheless, a smaller client service area, including a comfortable lounge for out-of-town business clients, has been created at the end of one floor, separate from the working space used by lawyers and staff.

Ask law firm leaders about office design almost anywhere in the country, in firms large or small, and you will likely hear the same refrain: “We don’t want it to look like a law office.”

One can only expect, as this trend continues, that anyone walking into a building in a few years will know immediately from looking at the light and airy décor, the high-tech equipment, and the comfortable lounges that this must be a law office.

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