Down angle view of office with open space and stair cases

Changing Spaces: Boldly transforming where and how lawyers work

  • December 04, 2015
  • Tracie Crook

Future-focused law firms are exploring new workspace strategies to reshape office culture and support evolving strategies

Remember the days of oak-paneled boardrooms and corner office suites with sweeping vistas designed to project a law firm’s brand, values and performance? The times are changing as future-oriented law firms look to new design concepts to reflect their clients’ priorities, shifting workplace cultures and strategic priorities.

Traditionally, law firm office space allocation was based on the premise that legal work is engaged upon by an individual on behalf of ‘the client’ and a private office, especially one situated in the corner, was a marker of achievement at the very top of a competitive hierarchy. Today, economic realities, client demands, and the need for a more democratic environment are driving evolving workplace strategies for law firm space requirements. 

Changing business models

Since the 2008 recession, the legal sector has witnessed a flattening in demand for legal work across the continent and around the world, compounded by increasing pressure on pricing by clients and a host of alternative providers entering the market.  As a result, firms have bid farewell to annual double-digit growth. To gain a competitive advantage, law firms now define creative alternative fee arrangements, leverage project management, and seek methods to drive efficiency.

As we approach the close of 2015, the outlook for legal services in Canada shows slight improvement for most firms, yet performance has not recaptured pre-recessionary levels.  Understandably, there remains a wary and residual caution in the sector. 

In a market environment with increasing pressures, law firms are directing greater attention to operational overhead of which real estate comprises a significant portion, second to salaries.  With leases coming up for renewal in major North American markets – and abundant construction of new commercial properties enabling firms to relocate or refresh their office spaces - a design approach to redefine spaces is taking root in law firms that decades ago would never have been considered by the partnership. 

Coupled with the transformation that is profoundly altering the way law firms think about using commercial real estate, the design trend is marked by shared office spaces, smaller office footprints, collaborative spaces, remote worker opportunities and other flexible work arrangements.

Yet the more pressing challenge to firms wanting to take advantage of such changes is the requisite significant cultural adjustment. Some firms are boldly moving from traditional, closed and hierarchical environments to open and flexible concepts, which were more commonly found in other corporate entities like financial institutions and technology companies. But this raises the question of whether this type of work environment is appropriate for law firms.

A range of design applications

Ample examples exist globally of the new office configurations resulting in reduced space allocations and footprints. And this shift is likely permanent.

Some law firms in Canada and the U.S. are choosing to renovate in more contemporary styles and embracing more flexible layouts while balancing the industry’s unique privacy and confidentiality requirements. Others are moving to more flexible and open work environments in newly developed commercial properties boasting sustainable amenities and LEED certification. Buy-in for such workplace innovation is often the result of compelling arguments that demonstrate the potential bottom line savings for a firm that embrace these design concepts.

In Sweden, law firm Lindahl relocated to the former headquarters of Swedish clothing giant H&M. Completed in 2010, Andreas Martin-Löf Arkitekter was commissioned to design a full interior refurbishment of the premises, which earned recognition as one of the world’s most beautiful law offices. The sleek office boasts bespoke furniture and lighting, a new library and stylish entrance foyer spaces.

In London, approximately one-third of law firms are open-planned with no individual offices whatsoever. Collaborative spaces with mixed seating, hot desks (where multiple workers make use of a single workstation during different periods of time) and comfortable leisure spaces such as office cafés have increasingly allowed for impromptu brainstorming sessions and cross pollination of ideas.

In Australia, Allens Linklaters, Baker & McKenzie, Herbert Smith Freehills and Allen & Overy are bucking tradition. These offices were designed by Bill Dowzer, of the architecture firm BVN Donovan Hill, who has become a specialist in re-imagining law firms. He is quick to acknowledge that it is difficult to bring change to the legal world, where hierarchy has been core to firm culture.

Having toured firsthand the Australian premises which BVN showcased, McCarthy Tétrault retained Bill Dowzer to tackle the firm’s planned renovation of its Québec City and Vancouver offices (scheduled for early 2016) in order to incorporate the innovative principles of alternative workplace environments. Ground breaking in terms of design and overall approach, the resulting workplace is expected to positively impact overall collaboration, productivity and efficiency. Design objectives include the creation of a more welcoming and healthy environment for McCarthy Tétrault’s entire team while reflecting the firm’s bold ambition to preserve their reputation as innovators and market leaders. 

Building support and managing resistance with workplace strategies

While traditional rules are being re-written, with flexible design components developed to meet the changing needs of the legal practice, there are pros and cons to consider. 

Technology increasingly allows for different work environments to optimize how people and law firms use space. Technological changes enable unprecedented mobility both within and outside of the workplace. There’s no denying the advantages of an open-plan office: creating and nurturing relationships, mentoring, increased collaboration, attraction of top talent from the millennial community and a sense of camaraderie, along with greater employee satisfaction and morale. Another advantage is cost savings in reduced floor space and relative impacts to energy consumption and operational management.

In contrast, frequently-raised concerns with new designs include increased noise levels and distractions, leading to reduced concentration and productivity, vulnerability to the spread of illness, and compromised privacy or confidentiality – all of which have merit.

Why would any firm choose to design an office space that creates these potential issues? The key is to identify concerns early and address them in the workplace strategy and overall design approach. 

Much more than floor plates and seating plans, firms interested in taking this path should first develop a workplace strategy that supports business objectives driving operational efficiencies, providing exceptional client service, reducing costs, fostering collaboration and attracting the next generation of lawyers.

Workplace strategy is the dynamic alignment of an organization’s work patterns with the work environment to enable peak performance and reduce costs.[1]

To galvanize support and manage the cultural shift, engage different people in the process to explore and understand the organisation's requirements and discuss various recommendations for a workplace solution that will help the firm meet its current and future needs.

The workplace strategy may facilitate meeting diverse business objectives from improving business performance and reducing property costs, to merging organisations/cultures or relocating or consolidating occupied buildings. It may be the result of the firm realizing that it is running out of space, or complement leadership’s interest to introduce organisational change.

Whatever the specific objectives, a workplace strategy will focus on how to use the space more efficiently and effectively. Often, recommendations will include moving from cellular (predominantly private office) environments to more collaborative plans, or introducing new ways of working and moving to a flexible or agile working environment.

Ultimately though, while these plans may seem to address mundane details such as walls, desks and windows, they often depend on the application of change management principles to both ensure that the final office environment solution satisfies stakeholders and that internal buy-in has been achieved, in part through strong internal communications.

Design to support transformation goals

We experienced this process first hand at McCarthy Tétrault, when we reviewed our office design as one element of a multi-year organizational transformation program to re-energize our operations and create a world-class delivery steam for the future.  

Our firm already had a history of innovation, including our past milestones of becoming the first national law firm in Canada and being the first Canadian firm to train its lawyers in project management.  Today, our transformation program is helping us strengthen our focus on developing solutions for our clients that create value through efficiency, and we’re supporting these changes by challenging our assumptions of how law is practised, how law firms function and the way we work.

As part of this program to adopt a new service delivery model, reduce costs and introduce efficiency-enhancing technologies, McCarthy Tétrault recognized that the firm had an opportunity to look at how physical spaces could be transformed to support the evolution of the legal industry.

Through a series of interviews and focus groups, we began a process, facilitated by architecture firm BVN to engage our people and challenge them to re-think the future of our work environment. We invited them to tell us what worked well, what did not, and how would they prefer to work in the future. We also encouraged our people to share aspirational anecdotes about how changing our workspace and technology solutions could improve the firm’s ability to efficiently deliver legal services. 

To help socialize the new approach among team-members, we erected mock-ups of the pavilions and workstations, inviting people to try them out and offer their comments. We held ‘town hall’ meetings to keep everyone informed of our construction and relocation progress with ample time to receive and respond to employee questions. As with other aspects of effective organizational transformation, success depends on firm leadership to help guide the process, make decisions that fit best for the majority and the future of the firm, while building consensus regarding the best way forward.

This process resulted in a clear vision for a new work environment and national workplace strategy, which will be applied to all of our locations as the firm moves forward. Our overall approach is aligned to the firm’s mission, core values and business priorities. We are replacing the typical hierarchical, closed-door model of traditional law firms and creating a more flexible space (hybrid) that is conducive to teamwork, collaboration, and reflects how our clients work.  We expect the new space will have an enormous impact, psychologically and physically, changing behaviours and the way we work.

Empowering the evolving practice of law

The legal community is seriously questioning how they use space, who sits where, and how to maximize flexibility of standard office environments to prepare for the future of the profession.  Through the economic and market drivers for change, non-traditional environments for the law firm are the way forward. Though sceptics may reserve judgement and some may never be swayed, the overall support for alternative work environments far outweighs the resistance from detractors. 

Although effectively managing the transformation and cultural change can be a struggle, the best practices deployed by a number of the world's leading law firms show that, with the aid of carefully planned design innovation, it is possible to introduce non-traditional work environments to help future-focused law firms evolve into efficient and innovative, client-centric organizations.

Tracie CrookAbout the Author 

Tracie Crook is Chief Operating Officer of McCarthy Tétrault, responsible for the leadership, strategic direction, and continuous advancement of their services operations.


[1] Savage A E (2005) Workplace strategy: What it is and why you should care. Journal of Corporate Real Estate, 7(3).[1])

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