Toronto designer aims to overhaul law office culture

Law firms’ attachment to big corner offices and private workspaces may make it harder to adapt to new technologies and retain new talent, says an interior designer that works with firms.

Toronto designer aims to overhaul law office culture
Deanna Hayko encourages law firms to cluster their workspaces into “neighborhoods” based on practice area.

Law firms’ attachment to big corner offices and private workspaces may make it harder to adapt to new technologies and retain new talent, says an interior designer that works with firms.

“Law seems to be old school in many ways. And the future might change the way they work,” says Deanna Hayko, partner at iN STUDIO in Toronto, who has worked with Willms & Shier and Goldblatt Partners. “We used to have to go to the bank, and bring checks, and deposits were a pain. Now, we can do it all online. The same thing is happening in law.”

Hayko says that as the price-per-square foot skyrockets across North America, she has to challenge lawyers to think “how small is too small” when it comes to their offices, to allow space to be repurposed as shared lounges, cafes and meeting rooms with increased natural lighting. Increasingly, she says, firms are upending the traditional office model with a beautiful, client-facing core, offices around the perimeter — and other staff siloed under dim fluorescent lights.

Instead — inspired by her work at tech companies like Google and her early work in massive spaces like airports and schools — Hayko encourages law firms to cluster their workspaces into “neighborhoods” based on practice area.

“When you go to somebody’s neighbourhood in Toronto, they will have the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker — a market, a coffee shop, that type of thing,” she says. “How do we pull offices off the glass … and facing each other? So there is a cluster of offices and support team members that work together.”

She says that sometimes firms outside of Bay Street are more open to the idea of “neighborhoods,” which allow for increased mentorship and inclusiveness within firms.

“They work long, long, long hours with no reprieve. We are trying to find a way to help them with that. Because, eventually, recruitment will be a problem,” she says. “They will lose some great talent if they don’t pay attention to those sorts of things .... the business structure is changing. It used to be every partner would have a complement of clerks and admins, though of course it varies from firm to firm …. there is a whole group of people now that just work in the [artificial intelligence] realm.”

Of course, the legal community has some unique needs, she says. For example, while law firms need enclosed offices for privacy reasons, Hayko says “extensive use of glass provides physical transparency.”

While it can sometimes be difficult to get lawyers to open to the idea of changes — such as an “agile” workspace with no assigned desks and offices — Hayko notes that lawyers have typically adapted more than they realize.

“Everybody is afraid of change — it doesn’t matter who you are talking about, it’s not just law,” she says. “I say to them, ‘So in the last ten years, you’re telling me there has been no change in how you practise law?’ And I will get, ‘No, not really.’ And I will say, ‘Has technology assisted in any change?’ And, maybe they’ll say, ‘Well, a little.’ And I’ll say, ‘You realize the iPhone was only invented in 2007, have you not changed how you use the phone?’ And they say, ‘Of course we have!’ It helps them understand that there is a future.”

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