COVID Insights, Perspectives May 13, 2020

Future Dialogues: The Legal Workplace

Our Future Dialogues series brings together industry and clients to discuss themes and trends that will impact the future of property and design.
London, United Kingdom

This is a write up of our Future Dialogues Webinar hosted on 13th May 2020.


Speaker Panel

Tom Goldsmith, Partner, Real Estate, Eversheds Sutherland

Morette Jackson, Director of Business Development, University of Law

Brett Smith, Digital Buildings, Partner, Siemens

Kate Vine (Chair), Principal, Perkins&Will

Introduction by Kate Vine

The workplace has been forced to change overnight. The coronavirus pandemic has accelerated existing and emerging trends with many businesses, and law firms in particular, facing new challenges and opportunities.

For our Spring 2020 Future Dialogues event, hosted as a webinar, we explored topics such as the Climate Emergency, Digitalisation and Smart Buildings, the War for Talent, and the Workplace Revolution with a focus on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.


To give some context to the discussion we are having now, it is perhaps useful to understand where we have come from. Upon moving to the UK in 2004, I saw a very different legal landscape than the one I see today. There were large scale single or double occupancy offices for fee earners with up to 20 linear metres of filing per office or more, with large teams of support staff and paralegals trawling over documents all day and well into the night. It was a paper heavy working environment with stack filing being the favoured means of having your ‘matters’ to hand. Large legal libraries were required and lawyers still kept their ‘bibles’ in their offices or in their team areas for ease of access. And to respond to the sheer amount of documents that were required, large reprographics facilities were located on-site.

Exquisitely designed receptions and client meeting rooms were supplied with uniformed staff and catering facilities that were more akin to five-star hotel experiences than commercial offices. Meeting facilities were state of the art at the time with video ‘enabled meeting rooms’ with large auditorium and event spaces. A tremendous amount of travelling happened, zipping to and from client meetings, potentially with large teams working on major projects. With the determination to try to reduce travel, so began the advent of fully immersive video conference facilities, such as Halo or Telepresence rooms.

Staff amenity spaces in some buildings were like living in a small city with the amount of facilities that were provided. These spaces included on-site gyms, studios and treatment rooms, restaurants, concierge services with dry cleaning, partners dining rooms or areas, wellness suites with doctor and dentists. All in an effort to support lawyers that were working incredibly long hours and in need of respite or the ability to have essential items at their fingers tips as they were severely time poor.

Simmons & Simmons
Bristol, United Kingdom
London, United Kingdom


Flash forward 16 years and the legal office landscape has dramatically evolved. Some lawyers have migrated out of offices into open plan or even into an agile working environment, and the ratio of support staff to lawyers has shifted and reduced.

The dawn of artificial intelligence and data has meant that information is available to lawyers in real time. Many legal libraries have reduced dramatically or disappeared altogether. Offices are becoming paper light and some are going completely paperless.

Office spaces have become lighter and more nimble. There is a drive for more collaborative settings as most users have shifted to laptops and can work anywhere at any time, balanced with the ever increasing need for concentration and focus spaces. Trainees and graduates are looking for not just the ability to work in a world class environment with all the best facilities but they want the opportunity to have more work-life balance, an environment that is mentally and emotionally supportive and the need for more flexibility. New talent is also focusing on what the firm is doing for society in terms of climate action and questioning what is ethically appropriate. Facilities and real estate teams are asking more of the buildings they manage and occupy, with a drive to streamline processes and monitor their power and energy usage. We want our buildings to be designed with a level of intelligence behind them and law firms are looking for premium stock.

And now in the current circumstances, the entire global workforce has shifted to work from home overnight – it is the world’s largest agile working experiment. How will the legal workplace respond and adapt?

“The legal workplace is around eight years behind other professional services”
The Workplace Revolution

Tom Goldsmith, a Partner of Real Estate at Eversheds Sutherland, argued that the legal workplace is around eight years behind other professional services in adapting to modern office trends. However, with the advent of social distancing and working from home in recent months, the sector will fast-forward agile ways of working.

“Where Eversheds were targeting 8 desks per every 10 employees for their future spaces in January of this year, a post-Covid world may well see law firms set a target of five desks per 10 employees”, he said.

This period of homeworking has brought to light the limitations of relying on physical documents
during a time when we all must communicate remotely. Both during and after the pandemic, lawyers and their teams will need to be far more portable and that will include going paperless, reducing the environmental impacts and financial costs of printing.

Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton
London, United Kingdom
“Buildings that were once considered passive are now active contributors and prosumers of energy”
London, United Kingdom
Digitalisation and Smart Building

Technology is going to have to come into play, said Brett Smith, Digital Buildings Partner at Siemens, Smart Infrastructure. In the past, offices were traditionally not very adaptable nor connected from an electrical or mechanical point of view. Today, offices are focused on creating seamless user experiences, that are  connected, agile and flexible. Buildings that were once considered passive are now active contributors and prosumers of energy opposed to traditional consumers.

For end users, Smart technology in buildings can begin with our phones, with applications that allow seamless access to find and book desks /rooms, personalised settings (lighting and temperature via machine learning), 3rd party integrations such as restaurants, public transportation, gym classes and more. The valuable insights collected can be analysed to understand which spaces are being utilised, communicate regular updates to their staff and understand the operational efficiency and performance of their building 247 365.

This will not only be key for businesses in a quest to reach carbon neutral goals (Siemens is planning to be carbon neutral by 2030) but will provide essential systems that help monitor the health and safety of employees. We are in unprecedented times around social distancing and Covid 19 where data and  information become an essential part of operating a building safely and efficiently. Technology and data insights will play a vital role to support a healthy return to work, ensuring companies remain adaptive and flexible.

“There is still an expectation for ‘Californication’ when it comes to the look and feel of a company”
The War For Talent

Ultimately, all of these aspects are geared towards attracting and retaining highly valued employees. As Morette Jackson, Director of Business Development at the University of Law pointed out, the sector is an incredibly competitive market and firms have to adapt to changing employee needs.

Goldsmith believes, and Jackson agrees, that there is still an expectation for ‘Californication’ when it comes to the look and feel of a company. The next generation of new talent expects well-ness suites, gyms, restaurant-quality catering, and pristine arrival areas. But they also are increasingly looking for firms with a reputation of excellence, working in an inclusive environment, a better work-life balance, and corporate social responsibility.

However, the Covid-19 crisis does present a major challenge to that talent retention. Jackson argued that trainees and junior lawyers learn 70 per cent of their knowledge from first-hand experience and the current lack of in-person communication will limit their ability to benefit from the expertise of more senior staff members.

“Junior lawyers learn 70% of their knowledge from first-hand experience”
Miller Titerle
Vancouver, BC

Before the disruption caused by COVID-19, the legal sector was already seeing a shift in office design and ways of working. The private, paperheavy offices with libraries and large printers of old had started to be replaced by more flexible, open-plan spaces that promote collaboration and staff well-being.

Now as businesses start to adapt to working from home, a rapid and potentially long-lasting revolution is taking place in the corporate world as companies re-evaluate their office requirements.

While coronavirus will undoubtedly accelerate the legal sector’s modernisation with digitalisation and agile working, the value of the physical office space cannot be underestimated.