How the design of a law firm can affect lawyers and their clients

Dan Cox, director of commercial interiors at Carr Design Group, and Jim Holding, managing partner of DLA Piper in Brisbane, discuss the impact effective building design can have on the operation of a law firm.

What is the theory behind creating office spaces that employees and clients want to spend time in?

Dan Cox (DC): The workplace environment is the physical manifestation of a firm’s culture and brand. It can enhance the attraction and retention of best talent within the legal sector.

The legal sector has become fiercely competitive. While a firm may have the necessary knowledge and expertise that clients are seeking, cultural alignment is also becoming increasingly important in the decision of selecting the right practice. With clients spending increasing amounts of time in your workplace, there is an opportunity to enhance communication and expose them to better understand your business from within.

There is a human need in ‘belonging’ and to have pride in where you choose to work. The work environment can make the team feel nourished, to work more effectively with the result boosting productivity. Through communal environments such as cafes and lounges, designers are able to blend hospitality and residential thinking to add comfort and create a sense of calm. This is especially important within the legal sector where often the work day is longer than in other professions.

Jim Holding (JH): DLA Piper’s move onto a large, single floor at 480 Queen in Brisbane has provided a more flexible, innovative and collegiate working environment for us, while the office design itself reflects both the global nature of DLA Piper’s business and unique elements inspired by the city of Brisbane. We’ve created an open plan, collaborative workplace environment which will enable our people to provide the best possible support to our clients, both now and in the future. It will help us improve our productivity and also create a better learning environment.

How can law firms assess the benefits of this approach in terms of increased output and overall costs?

DC: The key measures would be:

  • productivity effectiveness
  • reduced team attrition rates
  • reduced operating hours of the physical environment
  • employee wellness

Essentially, a place where you flourish, enabled by proximity of teams in the workplace ignites innovation.

JH: An efficient, welcoming and well-planned workplace supports both the firm’s clients and its people. Costs can be measured through traditional metrics such as average space occupied per person and average cost per sqm, but output is a more subjective measure. Staff surveys can be one way to assess how well the space—including technology—supports productivity, collaboration and learning, which are ultimately all key ingredients of output.

Is there a secondary benefit in terms of reputation?

DC: Design can strengthen team culture and provide opportunity for extra curricula camaraderie, thus creating a supportive environment that encourages increased knowledge sharing. This can have a knock-on effect of improving skills and expertise by attracting likeminded individuals and the best of the best in terms of talent.

Another benefit would be work-life ‘calibration’, meaning an environment that supports your lifestyle and can adapt to your changes as years pass. This is becoming an increasingly important driver in the multi-generation workplace.

JH: We believe that our premises should mirror the style of premises that our clients are occupying. Our new office design is based on the concepts of flexibility, efficiency, innovation and collaboration. It includes the latest in virtual meeting and other audio visual technologies, as well as large open plan function and meeting space, community and break out zones, quiet rooms, offices and workstation hubs.

This is an exciting time for our people and our clients. DLA Piper’s global business model is to be strong internationally with a deep local presence, and our Brisbane office is part of a wider global firm which is committed to and already well embedded in the Queensland market.

How has the thinking behind workstations developed over the past five years?

DC: As far as the desk is concerned there is less emphasis on a one-size-fits-all approach to cater for every task. Instead, a variety of work settings designed for specific tasks have evolved. This has led to a significant shift in the way legal workplaces are planned. While most firms have moved to higher proportions of open plan, the counter balance is increased diversity of choice for the workers. Technology has enabled the team to choose to work in spaces designed specifically for either collaboration or focus away from their regular day-to-day desk.

There is a genuine focus on flexibility to enable groups to blend and reconfigure based on client needs. For example, some firms are arranging groups around clients rather the traditional practice group model where all tax or all property lawyers sit together. Groups are assembled based on a mix of skill sets and expertise to increase a full service offer to clients.

There is an increased focus on wellness through heightened awareness of ergonomics. There is an expectation for sit-to-stand desks which improve blood circulation, posture and mental wellbeing.

In addition, there is a increase in the number of devices, streamed content and video conferencing at the desktop and a demand for more robust IT systems—whether it be high speed wired connections or wifi stability and range. Now the worktop surface itself can have charging capability. The ability for flexible individual acoustic control (via movable panels or hoods) is a direct response to increased audio/visual conferencing at the desktop

JH: In determining workstation design and requirements, there are a number of factors that have become increasingly relevant in the law firm environment, including for example:

  • the increasing use of technology on the desktop—at the same time there is less need to use paper and hard copy documents, as more work is done electronically
  • less reliance on finger-tip storage
  • the need for increased flexibility, for example to move furniture around to suit current needs, and
  • responding to ergonomic developments, such as the option of sit-to-stand desks

Are there any compliance considerations when ‘opening up’ an office space?

DC: Physical confidentiality is often a challenge in our clients’ minds and can be misinterpreted – for example, requesting walls between departments when representing opposing clients. Technology can help overcome this concern, as can flexibility in planning that enables groups to be temporarily relocated when necessary.

Acoustic confidentiality is another essential criteria for the peace of mind of clients, in particular when meeting.

Visual confidentiality is sometimes a criteria to enable discreet and separated entry/exit of visitors in particular when meeting. Most recently we have seen an increase in the use of switchable privacy glass to enable the best of both privacy and transparency.

A further consideration is the security of workplaces between the public zones and private zones for safety of employees. This is particularly concerning as world safety issues promote more caution.

JH: Certainly these factors need to be taken into account. We’ve created a number of alternative spaces such as quiet rooms for confidential conversations, lockable transaction rooms and lockable storage areas to help meet our needs.

Interviewed by Diana Bentley.

The views expressed by our Legal Analysis interviewees are not necessarily those of the proprietor.

First published on Lexis®PSL.

Filed Under: Legal Services

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