Space: The new frontier

  • August 30, 2021
  • Michael Speers

When the people at Gowling WLG in Hamilton decided they needed new office space, Louis Frapporti used it as an opportunity to examine whether or not the traditional office environment can still serve the needs of the firm and its clients moving forward. Looking around, he couldn’t stop thinking about how the big technology companies envision their offices.

“What I saw from looking at those companies and understanding the business vision was a huge focus on culture, but also on infrastructure – the environment where people work,” says Frapporti, a partner at the firm. “What does it project? What does it mean? It was tangible and physical. People related to it. It was meaningful.”

Frapporti developed an idea to create a space that would put the focus on the firm’s value to its clients and further its relationships with them. He wanted the office to facilitate mental wellness, team building and make for compelling amenity environments for client interactions and socialization.

“What does it mean to be influential as an organization in a region – in an economy? What does it mean to have that kind of insight, that power, the ability to pick up a phone and connect someone that is critical to somebody’s business?” he asks.

Frapporti immediately turned his attention to McMaster University and its Innovation Park. Being in the middle of world-class research, innovation and the sharing of ideas was exactly what Gowling was seeking. So, they’ve designed a new office that will become a key component of that future McMaster ecosystem.

“If you’re going to be about the future and interact with that cohort – those researchers, those companies creating the future where it’s actually happening – it won’t be at the top of a bank tower at Bay and King. It is at or near university campuses or technology hubs,” he says.

For Jordan Furlong, a former lawyer who has been working as a legal sector analyst for the past 15 years, the question of location – or space, in general – is really a question of culture and the values that culture represents.

“Our attitudes and approaches towards work are shaped by our location and our physical environment, and that absolutely is the case for law offices and law firms,” says Furlong. “Sometimes it’s not just the interior of the office that determines the culture, it’s also the exterior. We can change the culture from the outside in in terms of the physical location of the firm, as much as we can from the inside out.”

The world is changing and there is a growing belief that law firms need to change with it. For Gowling in Hamilton, that means changing locations. For other firms, the answer might be the look and function of the office environment itself.

“Work is no longer where we go, it’s what we do. So, we have to create destinations that people want to go to,” says Tara Whittington, architecture and design manager for Knoll, a furniture design company that has been doing research into workspaces and how they are changing since well before the COVID-19 pandemic. They recently brought together the Canadian legal community for a roundtable discussion about the future of law offices.

The pandemic has been a “great disruptor” to work and workspaces in the legal sector, and Whittington believes it has served to accelerate change that had been creeping into other industries for years. Working from home is now a reality, with lawyers no longer needing to work from the office every day.

“Partners understand that people can work from home because they’ve had to do it – and do it successfully – for such a long period of time,” she says, noting that a hybrid work model is becoming the preferred choice. “Firms need to create places where people want to go to, but also balance the need for privacy and status. It’s about balancing expectations – a great place to go, but a place that also has the privacy that is required.”

So, what will law offices look like in the near future? Whittington says the spaces are going to have to be universal and multi-purpose, with workspaces assigned or booked through a reservation system. Firms will also need to look at why people are coming into the office and understand what their needs are.

“There is going to have to be flexibility, because what’s the point of having a whole floor plan that is empty half the time. Spaces are going to need to be nimbler and more flexible to accommodate for that,” Whittington says.

Both Whittington and Furlong believe the focus is going to be on creating collaborative space beyond just having a boardroom. This will help facilitate group work, interactions with clients both in-person and virtually, and maintain access to knowledge and expertise.

“There is a recognition that in the future, law firms will have fewer dedicated offices with people’s names outside saying ‘this is my office’ and quite a few more of these collaborative spaces where you can gather,” Furlong says.

“People will want to come back to the office. Right now, they are comfortable not commuting and having that balance with family. It’s a big draw now, but people miss people, we miss each other, we miss the social collaboration,” Whittington says. “Doing things virtually is not the same as doing it in person. That networking you do either with colleagues or clients can’t be replicated in a digital way, and that will draw people in.

“But most firms will not go back to being in the office five days a week simply because we just don’t need to.”

And, according to Furlong, this means that workspace is moving up the rankings when it comes to what lawyers are looking for when it comes to their employer. Flexibility when it comes to workspace might not become a recruiting advantage, but not having that flexibility will be a disadvantage.

“Not just because of the lack of flexibility that it offers people, but also about what it says,” says Furlong. “What it says about a firm that is rigid about its workspace arrangements is we are completely unaware of or completely indifferent to the reality of the world that has changed under our feet – we don’t care fundamentally about whether you like your workspace or not, what matters to us is what we want from all this. The signal that this sends to the market is ‘stay away’.”

For Frapporti, this is also true for location and the need to be among the top minds in education, health, technology and science.

“We need to be there because then we can bring to our clients who are not there, insights from that ecosystem,” he says. “We can be the mediator and broadcaster of all of that insight and information globally to our offices round the world and to our clients, and we can do it virtually. That is an incredibly exciting opportunity for us – to be that disseminator of really important information.”

About the author

Michael Speers is the OBA’s media & communications specialist.