open-plan office

“As the new [open] space intended, I’ve formed interesting, unexpected bonds with my cohorts. But my personal performance at work has hit an all-time low. Each day, my associates and I are seated at a table staring at each other, having an ongoing 12-person conversation from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. It’s like being in middle school with a bunch of adults.”

The above quote is from a recent Washington Post article, Google got it wrong. The open-office trend is destroying the workplace. It’s clear where the author stands on the debate of the effectiveness of open-plan office spaces.

But naysayers aside, the trend continues. In 2014 the behemoth law firm, DLA Piper, flipped their new offices in Sydney to an open-plan office space. The goal: for junior lawyers to have first-hand opportunities to see how more experienced practitioners work and to engender a greater team feeling. However, partners have the choice between having their own office or joining the masses in the open plan section.

There’s no denying the advantages of an open-plan office: creating and nurturing relationships, mentoring, increased collaboration, and a sense of camaraderie. Another advantage often cited is cost savings in reduced floor space and construction. If that’s a concern, why not go to an all-remote law firm?

But the drawbacks can be severe: noise and distractions leading to reduced concentration and productivity, vulnerability to the spread of disease like colds and the flu, and compromised confidentiality.

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After spending more than a dozen years at a large New York City law firm then going to an office of one and open-plan co-working spaces as a consultant, and ending up at a legal tech company with a somewhat open-plan office, I’ve experienced the range of office settings. And the best solution is hybrid plan similar to DLA Piper’s Sydney office. And, as the new culture is adopted by more associates, partners, and new recruits, there will be less need for traditional offices.

Or, if you want to go all in right away on the open-office plan, make sure you have enough conference room for meetings and client engagements, and privacy booths for laser focused work and quiet, creative time. Throw in the option to work remotely for a couple of days each week, and you’ve covered the bases for a flexible, collaborative, productive law firm.

Colin Scarlett, a commercial real estate specialist, notes that a third of law firms in London are open-planned, so they literally have no offices whatsoever — no individual offices. There are lawyers making millions of pounds literally sitting out in the middle of a space in a cubicle.

The article acknowledges that “traditional law firms usually separate their new recruits from the top elders (and their brains) who are holed-up in corner offices out of sight and earshot. But in London, collaborative spaces with mixed seating, hot desks and comfortable leisure spaces such as office cafés have increasingly allowed for more impromptu brainstorming sessions and cross pollination of ideas.

Thing is, many law firms already have elements of this in place for staff: secretaries, word processing, accounting, technology, marketing, libraries (what’s left of them), and other departments. With associates and partners getting on board–like in the UK, a region leading the charge on change in the legal profession–open-plan office spaces, or a productive hybrid of sorts, will likely become the rule rather than the exception for law firms. And that’s a good thing.

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