Focus: Law firms adopt innovative office design

Innovation is a flavour of the day in today’s legal market. But for the most part, the word tends to be heard in the context of efficiencies, not culture.

McCarthy Tétrault LLP and Miller Thomson LLP are two firms setting out to change that. Both are committed to including office space design as a tool in transforming their culture and breaking traditional norms and stereotypes surrounding the profession.

“It’s about culture, about changing behaviours, shifting for the millennials, identifying new ways of working and delivering services, and operationalizing the changes that are taking place in the market and the profession,” says Tracie Crook, McCarthy’s Toronto-based chief operating officer.

Traditional offices are organized on the perimeter so as to provide window space to occupants, and tend to have solid walls and doors.

“The problem is that people could simply close their doors or just walk away down the hall without engaging anyone,” Crook explains. “There had to be a better way, one that was a more collaborative, engaging environment.”

Prophetically, perhaps, clients were also asking why some lawyers had such large offices.

“They wanted to know why their lawyers didn’t look more like they did,” Crook says. “After all, space is one of the two biggest costs for law firms.”

McCarthy’s new design — now in place in Quebec City, in the works in Vancouver, and eventually destined to roll out nationally either by way of redesign of existing space or by moving to new space — deals with some of these issues by creating an open-plan office.

 The windows are now next to a wide hallway that more or less encircles the office on the perimeter. Toward the interior of the floor where lawyers and staff work, and just beyond the walkway, is an area open to all featuring workstations occupied by associates and staff working with a particular partner at a particular time.
Open ceilings with utilities exposed further the concept.

“The partners can have the associates they’re working with at any time right outside their office, and people can change places at any time,” Crook says. “As well, people in the work areas can see anyone walking by, because there is nothing to impede their view of the perimeter.”

The partners are housed in what amounts to glass pods interspersed among the workstations and featuring sliding glass doors.

“Everyone has accessibility to light, almost like a Starbucks environment,” Crook says. “The millennials are used to working in an open space with music in their ears and someone else working right next to them.”

Boardrooms are on a separate floor. A staircase joins the floors, promoting a sense of openness and allowing clients to get a feel for the firm’s working area. The boardroom walls are soundproofed, but they feature glass walls with curtains that come down if more privacy is desirable or required.

“There’s always a sense of being right in the office, which also demonstrates to clients that we’re working collaboratively and efficiently,” Crook says.

To further encourage socialization and engagement, McCarthy will also stop delivering food to the boardroom.

“There’s an area that has a kitchen environment where clients can help themselves to food and drink and take it back to the boardroom,” Crook says.

Somewhat unfortunately, McCarthy had to look abroad for the right designer, who turned out to be Bill Dowzer of BVN Donovan Hill, an architectural firm headquartered in Australia that has recently opened a Manhattan office. McCarthy chair and CEO Marc-André Blanchard came across BVN after being wowed by his design at the offices of Herbert Smith Freehills in Australia, a country that may have spearheaded the revolution in space design over the last 15 years or so.

“None of the Canadian designers we had talked to were nearly as innovative,” Crook explains.

Dowzer started by interviewing McCarthy’s staff and lawyers, investigating their current work habits and what they wanted out of future workplaces. He also consulted the firm’s clients.

“My goal was to create places where people want to be rather than places they must go to,” he says.

On a national tour of McCarthy’s offices with Crook, Dowzer discovered a certain sense of alienation.

“The message we got in many of the offices was that people were feeling disconnected because the physical space didn’t allow them to connect, so much so that some partners working out of the same office hadn’t even seen each other for six months,” Dowzer recalls.

In one instance, a partner had a client who wanted very specialized advice and referred the client to another firm, then discovered that there was a lawyer housed four doors away from his office who could have taken on the work. Dowzer also heard complaints from associates who felt they were missing out on good work because they weren’t located close to a particular partner.

“Younger people are quite deliberate about wanting to learn as fast as possible,” he says. “So they want to have access to senior practitioners instead of finding themselves in a box down the hall where they can be forgotten.”

The open-plan design removes many of the impediments to these connections.

“Working in smaller clusters and ‘neighbourhoods’ promotes lawyer-to-lawyer communication as well as lawyer-to-staff communication,” he says. “In combination with the open perimeter, it also creates serendipitous conversation, which can be valuable because one-minute conversations can leverage a lot of things, especially when speaking with colleagues in different practice groups.”

Soon, Miller Thomson got wind of what was going on.

“We found out about Dowzer from the people at McCarthy,” says Karen Dickson, managing partner of the firm’s Vancouver office.

Miller Thomson had already caused a stir on the West Coast with its decision to lease a 48,000-square-foot floor at 725 Granville, the prestigious address that will soon house one of upscale fashion retailer Nordstrom’s Canadian flagship stores.

The building, in which Miller Thomson was the first office tenant, soon drew forward-looking neighbours such as Microsoft and Sony Pictures Imageworks.

The building, which offers a very generous floor plate, high ceilings, and natural light, suggests a unique way to conduct business — something of which Miller Thomson intends to take full advantage.

“Unlike McCarthy, where partners will all have a pod, we will be encouraging our partners to work in the open with other lawyers surrounding them in some way,” says Dickson, noting that all of the members of the firm’s executive committee have already signed on to work in the open. “We’re sold on the idea that this is the best way to facilitate knowledge transfer and work together.”

Partners who can’t deal with the changed environment will get their own pod. Dickson is hoping there won’t be many in that category.

“We want our people to think outside the box,” she says.

That should be easier when they’re not actually in a box.

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