The Future of Law Firms: The Cellular versus Open Plan Office Debate

David Murray

by David Murray

16.11.2017

One of the biggest debates in the legal sector today is cellular versus open plan offices. Are law firms looking at this debate from the right perspective? Knight Frank partner Richard Proctor suggests this perspective is far too binary and cannot do the issue justice. Firms should be looking at how their staff are working and using space. By doing so, they can gain the insight needed to help facilitate decisions around office design.

The Future of Law Firms: The Cellular versus Open Plan Debate
Open plan workspace at law firm, Wedlake Bell. Design & build by Oktra.

Is Workplace Consultancy a must?

What work settings do your employees require in order to complete their tasks? Where do your employees work; in the office, at a client’s office, at home? Gathering all this information, analysing it and using it to make informed decisions about the structure of your work environment will result in the best solution for your business. Whether it be a mixture of cellular and open plan or just open plan, it is important to go through this exercise.

Are you futureproofing your workspace?

Over the past few years, there has been a drive in the legal sector for more efficient and better quality space. Law firms are moving from being split across multiple floors to a single floor plate. This shift often results in a decrease in the amount of space per fee earner. It therefore should come as no surprise that four out of the five law firms with the largest real estate cut down last year.

The way in which people are working is changing across all industries. In the legal sector, the younger generation of fee-earners and business service members are coming into organisations wanting to work in a more agile fashion, not tied to one desk. Adopting this work style allows for a significant saving on space and the opportunity to enhance your front of house and introduce a variety of different office spaces. “As well as the obvious commercial argument rethinking the way you work can improve collaboration, mentoring and create a more lively environment likely to be more attractive to the talented millennial” says our design director Nic Pryke.

19% of the CBRE Legal 100 firms are now working in full open plan layouts compared to just 10% five years ago. Pryke chaired a panel discussion on getting your property portfolio strategy right at this year’s The Lawyer Business Leadership Summit. He was joined by the managing partners of Osborne Clarke, Mills & Reeve, TLT and Fieldfishers who are all in fully open plan work environments. Pryke comments that there has been a noticeable move towards agile working in the legal sector and organisations are asking the question “I know I need to change to stay ahead of the competition but I am not quite sure why?”

What is driving this change?

Cost: By working in a more agile way, sq ft per fee earner can decrease and revenue per sq ft increase.

Flexibility: An agile working environment allows for flexibility in employee adjustments.

Collaboration: An open plan work environment allows for greater collaboration and communication across an organisation which in turn results in increased productivity.

Talent: A quality work environment is required to attract and retain the best talent. A large majority of the younger generation prefer agile working and if a workplace doesn’t facilitate this, they may not consider applying for the job.

Mobility: Employees are demanding more mobility and firms are investing in the necessary tools and technology to support this.

Technology: Technology allows for greater efficiency which results in more billable hours.

Knocking down the walls and going open plan has a lot of benefits but understanding what spaces are required by your workforce is imperative to its success. “There is a simple economic argument for taking down walls and going open plan. If you get it right it will lead to a reduction in space needed of about 25 – 30% and an increase in revenue per square foot” says Pryke. From phone booths, to meetings rooms, acoustic booths and breakout spaces there are many solutions to suit different requirements and styles of working. “In the end it’s all about being more productive; working in a smarter more agile way will ultimately improve your bottom line.”

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