Perspectives 12.04.2018

The Law of the Land: Exploring the Future of Legal in London (and Beyond)

By Kate Vine

The nature of work and how we go about doing business is in constant flux. Across all industries, new technologies emerge, the economy expands, and lifestyles shift. Employees increasingly desire – and even demand – flexibility within their workplaces, including adaptable meeting rooms for collaboration, and areas that can accommodate changing workflows.

What does this mean for the future of the law office and the larger legal landscape? This was the question I recently posed to a roundtable of attorneys, designers, and planners that our London studio engaged to consider new models for the future law workplaces.

Law firms are considering the best way to use their office space to capture both the changing environment and the need for an agile workspace. Here were our other takeaways from the discussion.

Flexibility is a priority.

The panel discussion began with the story of law firm Bristow’s new model for open-plan working, moving away from the traditional office environment.

“We had grown from 180 to 280 people, and the nice, big two-person offices [the attorneys previously occupied] were now quite snug three-person offices,” explained Jerry Merton, partner and Bristows’ Chief Financial Officer, citing the expanding workforce and employees’ desire to work more flexibly as catalysts for change.

The workspace at Bristows had radically changed over the last decade. When an opportunity to take back some space it had previously been subletting came up, Bristows appointed Perkins&Will to draw up plans for the new office.

“We wanted to be more flexible and agile, we wanted to break down physical barriers, we wanted to enable people to work in a more collaborative and open way,” Merton said.

To calm concerns among partners and staff across the firm, the new space was run as a pilot with departments where there was more flexibility to change and innovative ways of working.

Merton says their approach paid off in terms of productivity gains: “We’ve seen greater collaboration, more joined-up thinking, more conversations around the firm.”

He added it is difficult to gauge the full extent of the financial benefits at this early stage.

Activity-based working could become the new normal.

At Simmons & Simmons Bristol, research showed that in the existing open-plan office, desks were only being used 50 percent of the time. Working with Perkins&Will, the firm plans to embrace activity-based working.

Simmons partner Mahrie Webb explained that this means nobody will be assigned a specific desk and that employees will be able to choose their working environment based on their schedule, tasks, and individual needs.

The most important thing for the company was how it could recruit and retain the best talent.

“If our people are good, and the quality of their work is good, then our clients will be happy,” said Webb.

Handing responsibility to the teams themselves was key to win over members of staff reluctant to change.

“There can be exceptions to activity-based working. There should only be very few exceptions, but they should be made on a team basis,” she explained. “As soon as you start dictating what people need to do and imposing hard and fast rules, that’s when people rebel. What you actually want to do is show them the benefits of what you’ve got on offer.”

The firm hopes that implementing these changes in the Bristol office will provide a test-bed for rolling out the new way of working in London and around the world.

Firms must right-size with future needs in mind.

Rising rent costs in London are forcing law firms to consider exactly how much space they actually need.

“I do think we are on the brink of seeing transformational change in the way that law firms occupy space,” said Frankie Warner Lacey, a senior director in CBRE’s London office who specializes in working with law firms.

According to CBRE’s Law in London report, 48 percent of London law firms are using artificial intelligence in one form or another, compared to an average of 23 percent across all industries.

“The consensus view is that this is likely to result in a reduction at junior and support levels of staff, but this could be balanced by an increase in innovation and technology teams. There are many conflicting pressures, which means it is difficult to forecast the size, shape and structure of law firms in the future,”  Warney Lacey explained.

“Flexibility will therefore be increasingly important,” she added. “Those law firms that embrace flexibility more will find that they are in a better position to respond to change.”

By way of example, Warner Lacey explained that the new City tower at 22 Bishopsgate will include multiple landlord floors offering tenant food and event spaces, and a number of floors designed for flexible working.

“As an occupier you might look at this and think, maybe there’s an opportunity to right-size. Maybe we don’t need to have our conference facilities in house, maybe we can reduce our in-house food provision,” she pointed out.

As of yet, Warner Lacey hasn’t seen any legal firms use co-working spaces. “I can understand the reticence from law firms to embrace co-working because confidentiality is so important. But actually, I think there could be a place for it in the emerging technology teams, the innovation teams, so maybe there is a slice of that firm that could be put in a different, more on-demand real estate solution to help manage that flexibility,” she added.

A changing landscape in London – and beyond

The panelists concluded that with so much change happening around them, law firms will need to adapt to keep pace, and that in the future their offices could look very different as a result.

While the rising cost of office spaces in London is putting pressure on law firms to right-size, modern technology and a shift towards activity-based working could offer solutions for them to economize on space.

It’s worth noting that the legal landscape is quite different in the U.S., where law firms are just now migrating to universal-size private offices (and eradicating the traditional corner office), embracing transparent walls, and adding collaborative spaces. While U.S. firms may be years from unassigned seating, private-office-less workplaces, and the notion of activity-based work – these changes may not be as far ahead in the future as one might think. Could London be the crystal ball for New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles?

Whether the firm is in the UK or the U.S., one theme remains: Embracing flexibility is the most important design consideration for law firms to prosper. As clients increasingly prioritize collaboration and agility, so should the law firms that service them.