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18 July 2012 at 12:03 BST

Law office makeovers: futuristic open-plan or cutting costs?

Major law firms are moving into smaller offices and utilising space in more flexible ways to cut costs, as the harsh economic environment sounds the death knell for traditional ostentatious, wood-panelled walls and large leather chairs.

Bye-bye to wood panelling

That’s the sobering view for traditionalist of the Wall Street Journal, which reports that well known firms are seeking to maximise space and minimise rent, putting offices into previously unused spaces at the core of buildings, and making use areas vacated by cabinets with the switch to electronic filing.
Practices are also increasingly moving in favour of group perks rather than traditional status symbols for individual partners. There are fewer giant offices for individual partners, with some firms providing offices of the same size for lawyers of all sonority.

Open plan

In the UK there is even a shift towards open plan offices. The Lawyer newspaper reported in February that many UK firms – including Pinsent Masons, Addleshaw Goddard and Eversheds – are moving into open plan spaces, although it is understood that so far no magic circle firm has taken the leap.
Martin Roberts, head of Pinsent’s London office told the newpaper that ‘the decision to go open plan was a strategic one’. Rather than being cost-driven, he accredited the move to a desire ‘to build in flexibility and make sure we were able to respond to change and create a modern, collaborative office’.
Debate remains as to whether law firms are attempting to reap cultural advantages in a more collaborative environment -- which is asserted by academic research -- or simply trying to slash costs in a difficult economy. Indeed, the traditional layout of offices sees a lot of space remain unused, even though it still costs between $50 and $100 per square foot on a global average.

Coffee bars

However, Jennifer Smith of the Journal claims that the change is about working environment and not money, highlighting the fact that although law firms are cutting rent costs, they are spending more on other initiatives. These include soundproofed glass, providing light and privacy in a more communal office space, videoconferencing technology and group spaces such as coffee bars and luxurious practice floor meeting rooms.
Hamilton Nolan, of web site Gawker, takes a more cynical view, suggesting that lawyers are attempting to disguise their lack of cash to spend on office space by sugar-coating their work environments through corporate speech. He argues that ‘most attorneys will soon be working exclusively out of McDonald’s restaurants that offer free wifi’, as this latest development provides yet another example that the legal profession has ‘crumbled into little more than a white collar version of janitorial services’.


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