Having spent last week in London, where every firm worthy of its PR news feed has at least mentioned “agile working,” it’s worth spending a few moments reflecting on what’s behind that shorthand.

The phrase clearly embraces the notion of being able to work (well, almost) anytime and from anywhere, but I think that properly understood it has to include a clean-sheet-of-paper rethink of a firm’s office design and how it uses space.

Given that occupancy is typically a firm’s second largest expense after compensation, I’m at a bit of a loss to explain why from my view there’s still more heat than light on this front (or talk than action).  Now, that’s not entirely fair.  For starters, judging firms by their City offices alone is to ignore the tremendous and growing investments in Belfast, Glasgow, Manchester, Perth, and so on.  These address both the compensation and occupancy expenses with, as it were, a double-barreled approach.

Second, the staff:lawyer ratios today would be unrecognizable to a time traveler from, say, 1985.  They might be tempted to protest, “how can we afford to pay lawyers to type?”  Don’t scoff; an early and terminally benighted boss of mine uttered those unforgettable words to me in about that very year, when I offered to bring in my own very primitive DOS-based, green-screen IBM PC clone on which I’d taught myself WordPerfect.  Last I heard he was an assistant adjunct professor at a community college.

But focusing on City premises seems fair to me since firms have invited the conversation by talking of “agile work.”  My only additional observation on this score is that I see too little evidence of their following that admirable premise to what seems to me its logical conclusion, which is to challenge the underlying assumption of specific offices assigned to individuals.  After all, vast swaths of the corporate world including accountancies, investment banks, consultancies, and the media have long since gone open-plan and “hoteling.”

But, since we have not departed the quaint precincts of Law Land, the inevitable caveats and elaboration:

  • Space usage studies have fairly consistently shown that the typical lawyer’s individual dedicated office is actually used about two days per week; in other words its utilization is about 40%; the rest of the time the “occupant” is traveling, at clients’, in conference rooms, or of course working remotely.
  • Some individuals—I categorize them as hoarders and/or dinosaurs—will hang on to their personal office space until you pry it from their cold dead hands. Let them.  They will start out as a minority of a minority and their ranks will shrink from there.  Leave peer pressure and the passage of time to work their own inexorable magic.  In the meantime, do not manage for failure nor tailor important firmwide policies around outliers.
  • What about confidential documents?, you ask. Indeed; what about them?  I hope we can stipulate that your lawyers and professional staff exercise common sense and prudence in safeguarding clients’ and others’ privileged information.  Sure, a cubicle is less private than a private office, but the healthcare industry seems to be dealing with HIPAA privacy regulations in massive call centers and other high-volume administrative production environments, and investment banks harbor confidences every bit as exotic or more so than the average lawyer.  I would recommend you’d get a far greater return if you devoted the same energy to taking precautions against more significant data breaches and hackers.
  • Lawyers are introverts; they don’t want to mingle or rub shoulders.   Agreed. Get over it.

All that said, I mentioned we’d just returned from London, and so we have.  One of the highlights of our meetings was being able to tour (thank you, Duncan Weston!) CMS’ new offices on Cannon Street, which are more cutting edge on this front than I, at least, have ever seen in a New York or City firm.  Two large floors (down from seven at their previous address) of mostly open plan, unassigned workstations with dual-monitor computers, tablets, and mobile phones.

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