Is the open-concept office a trend that has no place in a law office? Many a skeptical lawyer would say yes.
Until we did a deep look at this trend, I thought so, too. So did a number of lawyers who spoke to Jonathan Kay as he researched our cover story. Some lawyers thought the relentless emphasis on collaboration that underpins the open-concept office ignored the importance of solitary work like research and synthesizing documents. One lawyer told Kay that if someone tried to take away her office, “they might get hurt.”
We both agreed this was worth looking at critically — and asking if the open-concept office had gone too far.
What Kay found, however, was not a trendy “one-size-fits-all” approach but a shift that underlined something deeper. The legal profession had already changed, but these lawyers’ office space needed to catch up — and the solutions we heard about were as varied as the work they all did.
In Vancouver, Miller Thomson rejected the assumption that the windowed lawyers’ offices had to be arranged on the periphery of their space. Once that sacred cow had been slain, their architecture firm began interviewing staff and embedding themselves among the lawyers to observe how they worked together. They concluded that “casual collisions” were to be encouraged, not an obsession with corner offices.
In Montreal, Fasken organized its physical space vertically in a way that encouraged staff to leave their departmental bubbles, with a central stairway providing access to unique common spaces on each of the firm’s floors. Yet they rejected fully open work spaces, noticing that lawyers in those environments tended to sit with headsets and two computer screens in front of them, totally isolated. Fasken didn’t want to encourage that.
Kay also visited a small law firm, The Ross Firm, which adopted a hybrid approach. Two-thirds of their office was transformed into a single modern, sunlight-drenched space for clients and the remaining third was left as traditional office space.
Perhaps the most compelling rationale for an open-concept office came from the legal department at Sun Life Financial. They found their lawyers spent 70 per cent of an average workday in their offices, which meant they were paying rent on unused space. Moving to shared spaces would make the company more profitable.
What all these new layouts and approaches share is one thing: an acceptance that the legal profession has changed. These law firms and departments seemed to have moved on from a world in which legal discussions were conducted only in person or over the phone, where, in Kay’s words, “it made sense to create an architecture that acted as a bricks-and-mortar cone of silence.”
They had accepted that lawyers do their work differently with digital and mobile communications. Lawyers may need space for solitary work, but they need it for many other things as well, including collaboration and clients.
Some layouts may not work, and no doubt there will be experiments that fail.
The skeptics may say, “I told you so.” But the shift in how lawyers do their work is not just a trend — there is no going back. Now the space where this work is done needs to adapt.