Let me throw some controversy into your world today.
When I speak to groups about innovation in legal services the topic that always hits a raw nerve is the subject of office space. Next to personnel costs, office space is one of the largest fixed costs of any business, including law firms. However, much like the weather, every lawyer talks about it, but no one does anything about it.
It is a space planning rule of thumb that law firms need between 600 – 1,000 square feet of space per lawyer. Think of the savings if that number could be reduced to 400 or even 300 square feet per lawyer!
Many businesses have seen the opportunity to reduce costs by moving to an open concept office without offices – with employees working in stylized pods. The result is a much smaller footprint (which dramatically reduces costs), better air circulation, better temperature control and more natural light for all. Having personal experience in open concept offices where everyone from the president on down (including the legal teams) had a pod, not an office, I can attest to the fact that private offices are surprisingly unnecessary.
Lawyers however, immediately dismiss this concept out of hand. Lawyers, I am told, need offices to hold meetings and have private conversations to protect client confidentiality.
I challenge everyone to record the number of highly confidential professional (not personal) phone calls they take each week that require a cone of silence. You will find that these calls are few and far between.
Then record the number of ultra, double secret professional (not personal) meetings you hold in your office each week – it will also a miniscule number.
More importantly, consider that you are already in a law office and that the entire office is subject to confidentially obligations, not just your private office domain.
Then of course, there is the noise factor.
Lawyers, I am told, speak very loudly on the phone so they need an office.
Apparently this is a medical condition that cannot be cured and must be accommodated by surrounding the lawyer with not-so-thick walls which permit only her most immediate neighbours to listen in. Surely lawyers can be trained to speak using their “inside voices” so as to not disturb their neighbours? Would that not also encourage civility among the bar?
The private office within law firms has now reached the end of its natural life cycle. There is no longer any need for it, as meeting and privacy rooms can be created to accommodate the few times that absolute secrecy is required.
Marshall McLuhan said, “First we shape our tools then they shape us.” At one time (perhaps 50 or so years ago), private offices had relevance and importance because face-to-face client meetings at the law office were frequent. Those days are now long past. Yet that past has conditioned lawyers to believe that a private office is still a necessity as well as a sign of prestige, power and achievement that many are loathe to give up – even in the face of significant cost savings and better working conditions for all members of the firm.