The Legal Workplace: offices, open plan, agile or activity based working?

Angela Ferguson

There has been a lot of noise lately about activity based work and agile working. Mostly the big banks have adopted this way of working, starting with Macquarie Bank and quickly followed by Commonwealth Bank and ANZ. Other professional services firms such as JLL (recently awarded Australia’s Best Workplace Project 2014 by the Property Council of Australia) have successfully adapted this method of accommodating their staff.

Now it seems that the legal fraternity may be heading towards a way of working that includes no allocated desks, no offices for senior partners and a general deconstruction of how a law firm is traditionally laid out. So far in Sydney, Corrs Chambers Westgarth has been the biggest exponent of open plan working (as opposed to agile or activity based, which is a different paradigm altogether), heralding themselves as “the first major law firm in Australia to move to a full and open office environment”.

The appetite for change in traditional ways of working is driven in part by competition in the legal sector, particularly from overseas firms keen to establish themselves in Australia, and the merger of ‘the big six’ locally with overseas firms to form ‘super practices’. Other challenges include the attraction and retention of talented staff in a society where unemployment is very low, the desire for junior lawyers to have access to mentoring from senior partners, the ability to blend tried and true work methods with more modern technologies and of course the ever present goal of providing expert service and legal advice to clients.

Is activity based work and a more agile workplace really suitable for the legal sector?

In recent years it has been proven time and again that an intelligently designed bespoke workplace is a key factor in many CEO’s business strategies. So the move to adopt radical new ways of working that can be more sustainable, more cost effective and more aligned with the culture of an organisation aka activity based working or agile work can seem to be an attractive way forward, particularly for mid-tier law firms keen to differentiate themselves from their competitors.

Yet is completely reinventing the way lawyers work really necessary for the legal sector? For lawyers the predominant workstyle remains one that is concentrative and focussed rather than collaborative and team based.

To answer this question a customised approach that uncovers the specific, unique workplace needs for any particular law firm must be applied. It is important to understand that in a successful workplace a ‘one size fits all’ approach is fraught with danger. The latest innovations in workplace design should not be adopted simply because they are fashionable; a thorough and objective briefing process is critical to realising how the physical workspace environment can best serve a legal practice’s staffing and accommodation needs, both now and as we head into the future.