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Focus: Good design has spinoff effects, say firms

Focus: Running your practice
|Written By Michael McKiernan

When Borden Ladner Gervais LLP began revamping its strategic plan five years ago, the partnership decided the firm-wide transformation should be reflected in its physical space. 

After a previous relocation for the Calgary office and major renovations in Montreal and Vancouver, this fall, another piece of the puzzle will fall into place as the firm’s Toronto headquarters will relocate a block north from its current digs in Scotia Plaza to the Bay Adelaide Centre.

“We think our space is going to promote and signal to the outside world what BLG is like from an internal cultural perspective,” says Andrew Harrison, the firm’s Toronto regional managing partner. “When people come in, they will realize that this is a firm that has a different way of practising law.”

Gus Karantzoulis, a partner in BLG’s financial services group who is leading the move, says large, open spaces and glass-fronted office walls are a key feature of the new design.

“Natural light will no longer be the exclusive right of the people with offices on the edge of the building,” he says. “We feel transparent spaces are a signal that we’re promoting accessibility, teamwork, and management transparency.”

Fully modular work areas have freed up room for boardroom space, which has increased by 70 per cent compared with the Scotia Plaza office. Meeting and breakout rooms are also interspersed throughout work areas.

“The intent there is to promote collaboration among lawyers and clients for the increased efficiency that clients are demanding in this changing legal environment,” Karantzoulis says.

Even the lounges on each floor, and the cafe on the conference room floor, shared by BLG staff and their guests, are laid out with similar motives in mind.

“It’s not just a space where you go grab a coffee and then leave,” Karantzoulis says. “It’s designed to promote interaction with other lawyers and staff in the firm to increase the chance of creativity and collaboration.”

Karantzoulis says the firm will also use the move to slash the amount of space devoted to filing cabinets by 60 per cent.

“The office of the future needs to be efficient, both from a clients’ service perspective as well as an environmental one, so we’re taking great care to reduce the amount of paper we use,” he says. “Law firms can be very paper-intensive places, as you can imagine, so people’s habits will have to change to accommodate a reduced reliance on paper, but we will be providing the technological solutions to facilitate that change.

“One benefit of a move is that you can get people to change in a way that you just can’t when you’re staying in place. We’re trying to leverage that,” Harrison adds.

McCarthy Tétrault LLP is another Bay Street heavyweight that has attempted to reflect its philosophy in the way it manages its space. Earlier this month, the firm unveiled a brand new office for its Vancouver team, which it claims will change “behaviours and the way our people work.” The new look is consistent with the firm’s previous re-designs in Calgary and Quebec City, according to a news release.

“Collaboration and innovation are at the core of how we re-envisioned our Vancouver workspace,” said Tracie Cook, McCarthys’ chief operating officer in a statement. “Our new space will allow for more open communications between all members of the firm, leading to even better integration of our specialized industry and practice groups. We’ve also introduced new technology options for everyone, so that our people can work in the most efficient and customized way possible.

According to Michael Lee, it’s not just larger firms that can influence the way their lawyers work using simple tweaks in the way the desks are laid out. When he co-founded Toronto corporate and securities law boutique SkyLaw Professional Corporation with Kevin West in 2011, they called on Lee’s previous experience in the U.K., where tradition dictates that each office is populated by two lawyers, usually pairing a junior lawyer with a more experienced partner. 

“I’m sure it’s partly driven by real estate being such a prime commodity in London so that you have to squeeze as much as you can out of whatever square footage you’ve got, but I was able to learn a lot that I wouldn’t have otherwise. It was a great way to foster a relationship with someone more senior,” Lee says. “It was certainly better than some of the places I have been on Bay Street, where you tend to be cut off. It’s nice having your own office with a lot of quiet space, but you could easily go through an entire day not speaking with anyone. That might work for some people, but I need a bit of interaction.”

Lee and West set up a shared office in their Toronto space, inspired by the London model.

“We were often working on the same things, so it was great to be able to bounce ideas off each other,” says Lee, who recently returned to the U.K. to work for international giant White and Case LLP, but he remains a member of SkyLaw’s business advisory board.

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