What role does interior design play in a successful law firm?
Once upon a time there was a lawyer who spent all his time in a dark office lined on every side with books. It was sometimes hard to see him behind his huge mahogany desk that supported several towers of files. But you’d always know he was there, his presence as weighty as his innumerable legal tomes and as unfailing as the creaking floorboards.
Well, except between the hours of 12 and 2, when he’d invariably be out enjoying a boozy client lunch.
Back to the future
Fast forward, and the same lawyer today (who has also become a woman) is enjoying a ‘plug and play’ connection in one of the firm’s business lounges, which happens to be located on a balcony on the fifth floor of a vast glass-roofed atrium.
The mahogany is still there, but it is now in gleaming strips, used to accent swathes of brilliant white. The light pours in and twinkles off the glass panels that demarcate walkways, lifts, offices and stairs. It also seems that the lawyer has come into full view at the expense of doors. Whilst you know there must be doors somewhere, you just can’t see them.
This is another recent make-over from an international law firm keen to prove that it can do 21st century workplace. It’s about impressing clients with a spectacular design that acts as a quality-assurance stamp denoting a top legal brand. But it’s not just that. It’s also about creating – as one designer for a large UK law firm put it – ‘lifestyle-inspired team spaces’. These are offices designed in every way to attract and retain the very best legal talent.
“From a talent retention and attraction point of view, [a new office] can make a difference,” says William Arthur of legal management consultancy KermaPartners. “Clean lines and access to good natural light make a difference to the way people feel, and this can affect productivity. If the new office is well designed and airy, and has a good sense of space, and improved facilities, then I would always expect firms to experience a morale and productivity boost in the first year or two. These moves are often linked with new IT which enhances this effect.”
Arthur also points out that many of these make-overs followed years of rapid expansion in the 90s and 2000s, which left many firms compromised for space – or coping with premises that were no longer ‘fit for purpose’.
But he also warns that firms shouldn’t just create the space and then think everything will be fine. “From a cultural point of view, it is important to be clear on what must and can be done differently to make the most of the new opportunity.”
Can a design really change hearts and minds?
For many, this means a new kind of working in a new kind of office. By knocking a whole load of walls down, the emphasis has shifted to open-plan working, where the fresh and airy design supposedly feeds a culture of transparency and easy communication.
Flexibility is a key concept too, with staff often able to take their laptops and work from anywhere in the office, where there will undoubtedly be lots of space and natural light to promote collaboration.
And regarding light, think continuous glow of ‘high efficiency luminaires’ rather than common-or-garden bulbs. This is the age of sustainability, after all.
The lawyer in our 21st century firm pauses to look down onto the ground floor. She can see the sleek lines of the minimalist reception desk. Three receptionists are all kitted out in the firm’s designer uniform: a silver grey that says tradition and impeccability; but trimmed with a lime green that promises ‘we can think outside of the box, too!’
From where she sits, both visitors and staff seem small and exposed – as if they’re not quite sure how to behave in all that cool white air.
She sees her client arrive, take his visitor’s badge and move self-consciously towards the lifts. She can’t help but think that for all these new-age collaborative spaces, she wouldn’t half like to just ditch the office and take the client for lunch. CP