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Design and Dignity: the legal offices of the 21st century

Design and Dignity: the legal offices of the 21st century

Great spaces make great places and competition is mounting for large law firms to ensure their office design reflects their success, culture and esteem, reports Deborah Singerman. We take a peak…

Great spaces make great places and competition is mounting for large law firms to ensure their office design reflects their success, culture and esteem, reports Deborah Singerman. We take a peak at the offices of the major firms to see how they're stepping out into the future.

Law firms choose prime locations in tall towers, with sweeping views of the harbour or city centre, or floors in the most elegant, dignified building on the block. "If we are seen to be successful we have to be in the better addresses with our clients" is a belief Robert Backhouse, managing director at HASSELL architects, has discerned from his firm's legal clients.

"Historically law firms had the reputation of being the least innovative area of workplace architecture because inherently lawyers are conservative," he says. "But, more recently, there have been a few breakaway examples of firms in their design and retrofits being willing to explore, test and trial different parts of working."

Paul McGillick, editor of Indesign magazine, has noticed "a significant shift away from traditional dark timber and leather chairs. Law offices are now going for a far more upbeat look - light, colour, open-plan, artworks."

Yet less than half the firms in the Sydney Law Careers Fair 2009 brochure included pictures of their offices, and of those, demure reception areas and harbour or central city views dominated. Old habits, it seems, die hard.

Seats for clients, at Deacons' Sydney office, left, and stairs, right

Lawyers need to walk the talk, Backhouse believes, and align themselves more with work practice changes which reflect interest in and care for their talented people. "It is possible that three or four firms interviewing graduates, or staff at medium or senior levels, can offer the same amount of money and pretty similar client bases. They say they are an equal opportunity employers, flexible, multigenerational and interested in learning. But if they are in old, boring, normal, conservative offices a discordant message is coming through."

Maddocks, a firm that promotes its use of leading-edge technology, progressive work practices and strong alliance with the arts, wanted a new type of corporate legal space, not simply a cosmetic upgrade. The HASSELL design team - in association with strategic and workplace change consultants DEGW - held workshops for staff and management before designing the offices three years ago.

"We wanted access to natural light and space for everyone, fostering better interaction with colleagues and access to partners," says partner Guy O'Connor, who heads up the property group at Maddocks.

The reception of Maddocks' Sydney office

Partial, not total, open-plan layout allows lawyers to control quiet space for research, as well as have collectively owned spaces for team work. These include meeting rooms with different levels of privacy, breakout spaces, project work rooms, small lounges and team areas. Shared spaces and transparent glass walls provide "visual connectivity across the legal workplace" Backhouse says, where junior staff can see partners, and vice versa, and access each other quickly when necessary.

It is certainly different from "everyone boxed away in the corner, in their little holes". Whereas most traditional firms have a pure front-ofhouse client floor, Maddocks' client areas are spread across three floors. A social heart and learning hub - library, training area and cafe - sits in the middle of the six floors, connected by one staircase.

An internal staff survey shows that more than 90 per cent of partners and staff enjoy working in the refurbished Melbourne accommodation and believe that it "creates a favourable impression of Maddocks". Many clients commented on the workplace, and 60 per cent of staff thought it made staff more efficient and more effective in their work.

"The firm would not have embarked on such an ambitious project if the refit did not clearly encourage a shift towards better work practices," O'Connor says. "It enhances team awareness and more opportunities for effective learning and mentoring."

Getting around in the Maddocks' Sydney office
The casual feel of a meeting area at Maddocks, Sydney.

Deacons had outgrown its old place, but as a tenant had to keep within the limits of the established building. With Carr Design, the firm adapted the space available while at the same time meeting another important objective - to reduce its environmental footprint. The firm, which in January will become part of the UK-based Norton Rose, recently opened its fifth floor. Taking advantage of Harry Seidler's pillarless design (at Grosvenor Place), which already let in natural light, the result is a flexible hybrid of open space and individual offices that can be changed easily as the firm grows, says national facilities manager Lindy Mace, who led the project. This caters for lawyers and partners who wanted open-plan areas and people's chief concern for privacy/confidentiality and loss of individual meeting spaces, she says.

Glass partitions provide "privacy without interrupting the flow of all of that natural light", dedicated project rooms combine an open-plan layout with all facilities for working together on a large project within a large meeting space. "

Teams who may not necessarily sit near each other can collaborate on a short-term project," she says.

Choice of materials was crucial. Offices, meeting rooms and corridors have sensor-controlled lighting. An internal staircase joins all floors, highlighted by colourful striped walls. Low volatile organic compound paints and powder-coated architectural shrouds are used and furniture is locally produced. There are Good Environmental Choice-verified natural linseed-based linoleum floors from Forbo and carbon-positive workstations from Haworth that offset more than the carbon footprint generated through manufacturing, transportation and installation.

Jane Williams, principal at BVN Architecture, has noticed a greater appreciation and understanding of different work styles and work settings within legal practice groups, with a desire for more collaborative and innovative work. The challenge for any legal workplace is to accommodate the dual needs for concentrated work and a collegiate environment, she says. BVN Architecture also aims to support clients' business needs, their people and core business values, she adds.

BVN clients include Mallesons Stephen Jaques and Baker & McKenzie. A combination of enclosed offices and open-plan environments allow practice groups to move between floors, diminishing traditional hierarchies while enabling more efficiencies and flexibility throughout the business, she says. "There has been increased transparency in the workplace, both physically and culturally."

With reference to green design, Backhouse says, law firms, as with most corporate firms, "have very quickly got to a point where they say, 'We do care about it personally and as a corporate citizen.'

"They want clients to know they take their roles in corporate work responsibly and be known among their peers. They are also mindful that if they are going to do a major project that's going to last another decade they'd be crazy not to address it now. However, I wouldn't say the legal profession is running to be cutting edge - because they have no need to be, nor should they be" (see box).

No law firm has yet undergone a Green Star rating for their interior fit out, says Green Building Council of Australia chief executive Romilly Madew. However, Coopers Grace recently moved into a 5-star Green Star office. Oakley Thompson is a tenant at the 5-star rated 500 Collins Street in Melbourne, which was the first refurbishment of a CBD commercial building to achieve Green Star certification.

And The Sydney Morning Herald has also reported on Clayton Utz taking up "naming rights and digs at 1 Bligh Street", which is aiming for a top Green Star rating. The Manchester Civil Justice Centre in the north of England was designed by Melbourne-based Denton Corker Marshall with open-plan, natural light environmental credibility.

At the Royal Australian Institute of Architects (RAIA) National Architecture Awards in 2007 it took out the top international award, The RAIA Jorn Utzon Award for International Architecture. It has been praised for replacing "the traditional solid courthouse structure, which contains and encloses justice, with an idea about transparency and connection" and is popular with members of appeals tribunals. Backhouse has found that lawyers who have worked outside legal firms, such as in big accounting firms, often return with a more open mind about design. "A lot of it is psychological."

Post-occupancy studies have also revealed productivity benefits in the new, more open-plan era. Sustainability Victoria's study at Oakley Thompson, for instance, found a reduction in sick leave days and costs and a 7 per cent increase in lawyers' billing ratios, despite a 12.2 per cent decline in average days working.

The head office of property trust Stockland is the first project to achieve a 6-star Green Star office interiors certified rating. A post-occupancy study showed productivity improvements by Australian and international standards, influenced by factors such as performance glazing, ballasts, more daylight with translucent blinds, improved air distribution, more indoor plants, and change management and employee consultations - especially with issues that need continuing attention, such as noise and privacy.

Law firms, says Backhouse, need to understand that "if someone sees a great place it reflects what that firm is like. The symbology of what their workplaces look like is quite powerful."

Like this story? Read more:

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Design and Dignity: the legal offices of the 21st century
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