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FOR WHATEVER reason, law firms have persevered with the cellular office structure (that is, all professional staff having their own individual offices) despite that fact that many other…

FOR WHATEVER reason, law firms have persevered with the cellular office structure (that is, all professional staff having their own individual offices) despite that fact that many other professions, such as bankers, accountants and consultants, have embraced open-plan.

But the tide is beginning to turn, and a number of firms are now beginning to dabble with open-plan seating arrangements, albeit in various forms. These firms are seizing on a number of perceived benefits, ranging from more open and effective communication between lawyers, to better aesthetics and environmental performance.

Mallesons Stephen Jaques, for example, now has its entire Melbourne office staff and 50 per cent of its Sydney office staff (its mergers and acquisitions and banking and finance groups) in various configurations of open plan-seating.

While not technically “open-plan”, Henry Davis York (HDY)has also been trialling office sharing in its corporate advisory and funds management and superannuation groups since February. Its workplace relations & safety group joined the trial around three months ago, meaning that now a quarter of the firm’s professional staff is in a shared office environment.

When Deacons was deciding on the layout for its new Sydney office, it opted for a combination of open-plan seating and individual offices. The firm’s national facilities manager, Lindy Mace, explains that many of the offices are “open offices” that have only three walls, made of glass.

Similarly, when the partners of immigration firm Fragomen decided to move its Sydney team to larger premises this year, they also took the opportunity to re-think the seating arrangement. They decided to convert to open-plan seating for all professional staff, with the exception of the office’s three partners.

The Perceived Benefits

At HDY, partner Vanessa Andersen said that key drivers behind the move to office sharing was the potential to build stronger relationships between partners and junior lawyers and to improve mentoring of junior lawyers.

“It creates a better vibe — more collegiate. [Junior lawyers] sharing with partners… get to know those partners far better than they would in the ordinary single office environment,” she says. “And it also allows partners to get to know the lawyers, too. That’s really important because sometimes partners can be really busy and there doesn’t seem to be an awful lot of opportunity to get to know the junior lawyers personally.”

Andersen also believes that office sharing has encouraged more open and direct communication and greater sharing of ideas, which has directly resulted in the more efficient and productive running of matters.

Opening the lines of communication, particularly for more junior lawyers, was also a key reason behind Fragomen’s move to open-plan, says managing partner Robert Walsh. “One thing that was obvious was that people would work together better and communicate better if we created an opportunity for that communication to take place in a more natural way,” he says.

“Particularly, it allowed more junior staff to have direct access with the more experienced people they were working with, rather than having to wander down a corridor to office. They can just meet up and talk with them immediately.”

At Deacons, the results of a staff survey formed the basis of the decision to move to a hybrid open-plan-individual office arrangement, rather than moving entirely to open-plan. “Rather than opt for open-plan or offices we’ve chosen what we think represents a happy medium,” Mace says. “There’s no ‘one-fits all’ approach and having a combination of both allows us to meet different needs.”

Concerns

Cath Debreceny joined Mallesons as a senior associate in January, and says this is the first time she has worked in an open-plan environment. For the previous eight years she had worked as a solicitor in New York, where she says individual offices were the norm. She admits she initially had a few concerns about working in open plan, mainly regarding issues of personal privacy.

“I was a little bit nervous about it,” she says. “I guess just for privacy really — being able to make a call which is not strictly work-related and other people can hear what you’re saying. And [other people] can see what you’re looking at on the computer and know whether you’re attending to your work all the time or not.”

Similarly at Fragomen, Walsh said that the primary concerns of staff were noise levels — particularly from telephone conversations. In an effort to minimise these concerns, the firm conducted an orientation program focusing on office etiquette in an open-plan environment. “The orientation program seemed to address these concerns, and we have also created a number of quiet rooms that people can go to, to have telephone conversations or meetings if necessary,” he says.

Walsh also says that a concerted effort was made in terms of desk spacing. “We were careful to create enough space between people and between teams so that the office didn’t have the feeling of everyone being crammed in together. I think that’s made a big difference,” he says.

Andersen also acknowledges that respecting the privacy of others has been a key challenge of the office-sharing trial at HDY.

“The effective use of quiet spaces is a real challenge,” she says. “When you’re used to just being able to sit in your office and put the speaker phone on, or [being able] to just concentrate on one piece of work, I think the challenge is to [be able to say] ‘If I need to spend an hour on this document and I need total concentration, then I should probably take myself off to one of our quiet rooms’,” she says.

Andersen says that issue of “being visible” in the office was also recognised as a potential worry for junior lawyers. “I would imagine that one of the issues might have been that feeling of ‘Do I have to stay as late as my partner?’. So we made it very clear that peoples’ work practices shouldn’t change as a result of this trial,” she explains.

Feedback

According to Andersen, feedback from HDY staff involved in the shared office trial has been generally positive.

“The main feedback has been that it’s an excellent training experience for junior lawyers,” she says. “I know Jasmine Lukzak [the legal graduate with whom Andersen shares her office] has said that even with my short phone calls to clients she learned a lot about the way to deal with clients. That’s let alone the law I might be sharing, or even how you deal with a tricky situation.”

However it hasn’t been completely smooth sailing, and Andersen says that if groups decide to adopt office sharing on a more permanent basis, some general guidelines will be introduced around office-sharing etiquette, particularly regarding interruptions.

At Mallesons, Debreceny says that once she actually started in the open-plan environment, many of her initial concerns were quickly alleviated. Overall, she believes moving to open-plan has been a positive experience which she describes as “friendlier and more efficient”.

“In reality everyone is pretty much just doing their own thing. You get used to it very quickly and you don’t feel self-conscious about it,” she says. “And coming across as a lateral from a different firm, it worked quite well for me in terms of getting to know everybody in the team and actually meeting people.”

Like Andersen, Debreceny also believes open-plan seating can have a positive impact on work efficiency.

“I think it does make it easier to talk to your colleagues. The first transaction we did had to be done in a hurry. The agreement was split between three of us and it meant that we could talk to each other over the partition, instead of having to put down what you were doing, walk down the corridor to an office, open the office and ask the question. In that type of situation it actually does help a lot,” she says.

Walsh too, considers that overall the move to open plan has been a success for Fragomen, and he says that they would use the model again if the opportunity arose for other offices.

“My impression is that everyone has reacted to it very positively,” he says. “Definitely amongst the less experienced members of staff — I think they appreciate working in such close proximity to more senior staff.

“From time to time there’s concern about noise levels from one person to the other,” he adds, “but no one’s raised it in the sense of ‘Oh I wish we were back to our old arrangement’. Overall, the benefits have been very positive.”

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