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It's the new style

It's the new style

The design of a law firm office needs to impress clients and staff. Justin Whealing looks at how four law firms tried to balance productivity with style


 The design of a law firm office needs to impress clients and staff. Justin Whealing looks at how four law firms tried to balance productivity with style.

At heart, humans are a shallow race. Despite what many people might say to the contrary, people form opinions based on looks that can be tough to shake, despite the level of substance to be found underneath.That is why law firms spend lots of time and money to develop a reception area that tries to capture what they are all about.“First impressions are very important,” says Nick Nichola, the managing partner of Middletons, whose firm moved from west Perth to St Georges Terrace in August. “Clients and staff expect a certain level of comfort.”Location is obviously very important, with an office on St Georges Terrace or Collins Street and meeting rooms with sweeping views of Sydney Harbour giving a firm a sense that it’s operating at the centre of where the action is, possessing the money, power and clout of a major player.Colour also establishes an instant impression. Dark colours convey a sense of conservatism and establishment connections, while light colours allude to a contemporary and fresh approach.“Clients tell us that office design is a very important part of a firm’s reputation,” says Craig Wallace, the Melbourne-based chief operating officer of Allens Arthur Robinson. Allens is preparing to move, after 19 years, from its present location at Melbourne’s 530 Collins Street to 101 Collins Street early next year. Wallace says that in the reception areas of all of the firm’s offices, an expansive display of artwork is part of the Allens look.“Our clients want to go into an Allens office, wherever it is, and see there is a similar look and feel about the offices,” he says. “As we move and fit-out each new location, we are very mindful of that and hence, the current focus of the Melbourne client floor design team of incorporating the art gallery concept with the Melbourne client floor.”“We are dealing with one of Australia’s top law firms, so it should have that presence and power”Simon Swaney, director, Bates Smart Architects 


That attempt to bring a “wow” factor to the reception area of a law firm is replicated in the office design of all the top-tier Australian law firms.

Clayton Utz moved into one of Sydney’s most eye catching and innovatively designed buildings on 1 Bligh Street in June. On walking into the reception area, a visitor is immediately hit with a stunning panorama of Sydney Harbour that can be viewed on an extensive outside terrace.

“That first impression is a powerful one,” says Simon Swaney, a director with Bates Smart Architects, the design company employed by Clayton Utz to assist with its move. “We wanted people to arrive and say, ‘whoa, this is pretty special’,”. Swaney says that upon entering the reception area of a law firm, a visitor should be able to get a feel for the prestige and standing of the firm. “A strong impression is required,” he says. “We are dealing with one of Australia’s top law firms, so it should have that presence and power.”

While expansive views help to create a strong first impression, the features at the front office area of a law firm should also convey its personality. Swaney says the large amount of open space and natural light, light brown Italian wood features and terrace area were all designed to leave an indelible impression of Clayton Utz in the mind of anyone who drops by.

“I would hope they would identify an organisation that is thoughtful and highly professional and contemplative of what it is doing,” he says. “It should also convey a degree of sophistication and elegance, something that values the people that work within it and values its clients.”


“There was zero appetite for an open plan”

Julie Levis, partner in charge, Clayton Utz, Sydney


Lighten up

In today’s design environment, white is the new black for law firms.

There is a prevailing trend away from a design that uses the traditional law firm template of dark colours and rows of weighty bookshelves.

At 1 Bligh Street, Clayton Utz looked to incorporate light colours to complement the natural light that streams through the floor to ceiling glass panels. “It was all part of (keeping with) the light, airy, quality of the building,” says Julie Levis, the partner in charge of the firm’s Sydney office. “It reflects the way we do business generally. It is open and forward-looking, and it is pleasing but also very functional. There is nothing that is purely decorative. It works very well.”

Law firms are also very much more aware of the impact of how an office environment can shape the mood, health and well-being of staff. In preparing for its relocation in Perth, much of the feedback Middletons received from staff was that they wanted a new office with light colours and lots of natural light. Nichola believes light colours make the work environment for lawyers less intimidating and more friendly.

“I think that is why a lot of firms have moved away from the old, mahogany, dark wood grain and very dark coloured carpet – you could get the impression sometimes it is a bit claustrophobic and closing in on you,” says Nichola, when reminiscing about the typical law firm office he remembers from the early stages in his career in the 1980s and 90s. “With most modern workplaces, you now see much lighter, brighter colours, to try to provide a more joyful type of environment in which you are working, rather than one (that conveys a) very austere, sombre, dark, moody place.

“You can imagine if you are struggling with stress-related matters, if you come in to a (place) like that, you think, ‘Oh my God, I have entered the gates of hell’,”.

Johnson Winter & Slattery likes dark colours. The fast-expanding national firm used dark timber furnishings to fit-out its new reception area when it moved locations in Sydney from Australia Square to 20 Bond Street in June.

This is a look that was replicated when it shifted locations in Perth shortly after, and will also be used over the next 18 months as the firm seeks new offices in Melbourne, Brisbane and Adelaide.

“In terms of the overall look and use of dark timber they wanted a sense of elegance and style, a sense of solidity and permanence,” says Mark Talbot, a senior associate from Hassell Studio, who was the project leader on JWS’s Sydney relocation. “We wanted to convey that the firm is well established, that they are not going anywhere, and we wanted to provide a high-end hospitality feel to those client areas and meeting areas.”

JWS managing partner Peter Slattery says the firm had a committee of nine senior partners that decided on the look of the reception area. He says that although the firm’s work areas use light-coloured work stations and lots of natural light, the firm deliberately chose dark colours in its public areas because he wanted clients to feel they would be dealt with “discreetly” when they walked through the door.

“We see ourselves as handling the complex, high-value, difficult matters, and we wanted to convey to clients that when they come here, they are not on show,” says Slattery. “They are not coming into an art gallery. They are coming into professional offices where they will be well looked after in a discreet fashion. That is the kind of ambience we were looking for.”

Step into my office

In the last few years there has been a trend in professional office design to incorporate open planned offices and even “hot desks”, where staff have no fixed work station.

While that might work for a company like the Macquarie Group, law firms have largely stuck to a fitout based on individual offices for lawyers at the senior associate level and above.

“There was zero appetite for an open plan,” says JulieLevis when talking about the feedback from lawyers at Clayton Utz during design discussions. “They liked the idea of having their own office, and we had a high degree of acoustic privacy at our previous offices and they asked for the same degree of acoustic privacy here.”

The majority of lawyers at JWS also have individual offices. Peter Slattery says that an open plan office design is unsuited to the practice of law.

“We talked at length about open plan offices and at our last offices we experimented with a small area that was open plan, and what we heard from those exposed to open plan was that it was fine on occasions, but was harder to concentrate,” he says. “Our work requires deep concentration and the ability to occasionally shut the door and lock out surrounding distractions,” he says. “I know there can be lots of philosophical debates around open plan, but for us, there is no compelling business reason to move that way.”

While closing the door to an office can aid concentration, it does not enhance collaboration.


“You could get the impression sometimes it is a bit claustrophobic and closing in on you”

Nick Nichola, managing partner, Middletons, on the effects of a traditional law firm office


Law firms are cognizant of this, and in the modern office space there are several “break out” areas that are wirelessly enabled to encourage groups of lawyers to work together.

Allens CFO Craig Wallace says that large and small communal areas are becoming a more important part of the modern law firm office.

“101 Collins Street will be designed so it has a buttress on each side of the building, and on the southern side, it looks out over the Botanic Gardens,” he says. “The southern buttress on each floor is the community area, and is interconnected by stairs, so that is where people can get together, whether it be an informal meeting, social lunches or a departmental meeting. ”Wallace says that while junior lawyers will be sharing offices when Allens moves into its new digs early next year, 101 Collins Street will also feature smaller individual offices and a greater range of meeting rooms to facilitate group collaboration.

“Our people wanted a design that enabled them to operate with more flexibility than they have been able to in our current fit-out,” he says. “We will have areas on each floor where they can operate when a deal is on and people need to be pulled together quickly, with the flexibility to use informal meeting areas and more formal meeting rooms of different sizes.”


“They are coming into professional offices where they will be well looked after in a discreet fashion”

Peter Slattery, managing partner, Johnson Winter & Slattery, on why his firm went with a dark coloured theme


Green credentials

A law firm’s office is its public face. With many firms now having extensive CSR programs and publicly committing to reducing their carbon footprint, offices need to be energy efficient from a credibility and public relations perspective. The new home of Clayton Utz at 1 Bligh Street has been awarded a six-star Green Star accreditation, the highest rating possible, and a five star NABERS Energy rating.

In addition to the solar panels and floor to ceiling glass design, the Ingenhoven Architekten of Germany and Architectus of Australia-designed building saves an Olympic size swimming pool of water every two weeks through its filtration system.

“I think the green elements of the building are important for corporate responsibility,” says Julie Levis. “CSR has always been important to a certain extent – but it is the green element that is a relatively new thing that has been a big change over the last five to 10 years.”

An environmentally friendly office can also benefit a firm’s bottom line. By not being so reliant on air conditioning and having more natural light, the workplace environment is healthier and so are the staff, with fewer sick days and associated productivity gains.

Clients are also increasingly taking note of how green a law firm is.

“The energy efficiency of the building is obviously very important,” says Peter Slattery of his firm’s new Sydney premises on Bond Street.

Prior to moving in, The ING Office Fund and Mirvac spent $60 million refurbishing the former location of the Macquarie Group, and the building now has a five star NABERS Energy rating.

“Our clients do expect us to operate an efficient business from a cost perspective,” says Slattery. “Having concern for energy efficiency, which we do have, is a topic that comes up for discussion within our management team."

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