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Office walls come tumbling down

Thursday, December 08, 2016 @ 7:00 PM | By Saul Chernos


Gentle curves softening hard-angled power positions. Open spaces replacing corner offices. Sunlight bursting through oceans of glass to brighten the entire suite. Welcome to the law office of the 21st century, a working milieu where rites of privilege are slowly giving way to a more collaborative, egalitarian environment.

Miller Thomson’s new Vancouver office, currently under construction, is a case in point. Working with 50,000 square feet in the former Eaton’s department store in the downtown core, planners took a cue from Silicon Valley and embarked on an ambitious plan to reimagine the national firm’s workspace.

“We were looking to encourage a lot more collaboration and creative thinking while still giving people the ability to go off and focus on a project for a period of time, away from distractions,” explains Mike Walker, a partner and member of the firm’s national executive.

The design is more hybrid than full open space. “The overall feel of it is meant to be open and airy, but no one wants to work in a cubicle farm,” Walker says. “Our design actually divides the workspace into neighbourhoods essentially separated by offices and meeting rooms.”

Most striking for a law firm, perhaps, is the absence of corner offices. In fact, all offices will be located in central areas, with general circulation areas placed alongside the glassed periphery.

The buy-in has been considerable, Walker says, acknowledging a departure from more status-conscious times. “We’re not trying to impress. It really came down to how people want to work.”

Miller Thomson isn’t alone. Borden Ladner Gervais’ lease at Scotia Plaza in Toronto was coming due, so the firm started looking for new space with new ideas in mind and settled on the newly constructed east tower of the Bay Adelaide Centre, moving in this past October.

While the old premises were fairly traditional, Andrew Harrison, BLG’s regional managing partner for Toronto, describes the new layout as more egalitarian. Offices are along the building perimeter, and while there are ones in the corner, all offices measure 10 feet by 15 feet, the furniture is standard, and walls and doors facing interior corridors are glass, allowing daylight to stream through.

The more senior people tend to have the corner offices, but there are fewer in this design than there were in Scotia Plaza, Harrison says.

BLG has retained a few conventional boardrooms with rectangular tables but has a greater number of what Harrison calls huddle rooms, with half-moon tables and screens and other audio-visual accoutrements.

“We tend to be a fairly collaborative and collegial,” Harrison says. “If you’re the most senior person and all you really need is a place where a few of you can sit, you’re not going to get a room with AV capability if even the most junior person requires that.”

It’s not just big firms changing the landscape. The Law Studio, a small boutique firm, designed its mid-Toronto office so that its office manager, paralegal and three lawyers work from glass-walled offices equal in size.

“We have a communal work station area with a whiteboard that’s basically set up at bar height, and everybody can stand around it or sit on stools,” says Jonathon Baker, a managing principal.

But there’s more to The Law Office setup than just the architecture. Baker says the firm’s paralegal is a shareholder. “It’s not a bunch of lawyers running the business with a strong hierarchical model. The idea is to have it as flat as possible.”

The Law Studio also promotes flexibility. Staff are free to work from any location that suits them at a particular time.

“As long as the quality of the work is there and the work is getting done we don’t care whether you do it at home or at the cottage or at 2 o’clock in the morning,” Baker says, emphasizing that flexibility is a two-way street. “Just because you’re allowed to work from home, there might be times you have to come in at 6 o’clock in the morning or 9 o’clock at night to deal with something.”

These kinds of changes are in their infancy, says Jordan Furlong, an Ottawa consultant with Law21.

“A few firms have gone some distance down that road, but I don’t get the sense it’s a craze,” he says.

In fact, Furlong says he’s heard anecdotally of a couple of occasions where lawyers have used tape measures to compare actual sizes of spaces allotted to colleagues. “It’s status-seeking taken to its logical, absurd conclusion.”

Lawyers devote considerable time to thinking through problems and coming up with solutions, and Furlong says some of them might prefer to do that in privacy. “It might be challenging to achieve that in an open office format,” he says.

Still, Furlong says, firms which find ways to be less bound to hierarchy and traditional appearances stand to foster collaborative thinking and problem-solving and will help them keep pace with modern-day client attitudes.

Paul Paton, dean of the Faculty of Law at the University of Alberta, says studies show millennials are often uncomfortable with rigid corporate structures, and design and structural changes go hand in hand.

“We’re seeing the beginning of a wave of graduates and those working in firms who are demonstrating their choice in terms of how they work and how they expect to be compensated and recognized,” Paton says.

With the public turning increasingly to the Internet for self-help and expertise, which in turn could affect billing methods and even the very structures of law firms, Paton says the million-dollar question is what firms will look like in the coming years.

Alternative business structures have begun to take root in Australia and the U.K., with law firms merging with accounting and consulting giants, giving rise to the likes of Deloitte Conduit Law.