Debate: Open-plan or cellular offices?

Lawyers have historically worked in rooms for one or two, but some firms have switched to an open-plan set-up. Both have their merits but which side of the debate do you fall on? 

Open plan

Openplan office

Having worked open plan for more than 10 years, it is impossible to consider returning to cellular-based offices. The open-plan office embodies some of the key aspects of our firm’s culture – welcoming, collegial and non-hierarchical.

Clean white desks with screens creating privacy give a good working environment and are a far cry from the Ricky Gervais-inspired Office-like call centre. The impression is of a modern, forward-thinking organisation in tune with its clients. 

Everyone’s desk and area is the same, with no grandiose secluded corner offices for partners. This makes partners open and accessible to all. A far cry from my days as an articled clerk plucking up the courage to knock on the closed door of a senior partner who had asked to see you but to whom you were invisible through the shut office door.

So much of our knowledge is learnt on the job and having those close by being able to hear conversations and observe how one reacts to the demanding client or uncooperative lawyer provides invaluable experience – many a time I remember being asked to leave the room while a partner or senior lawyer made a call. Also, now I am a partner, I find it easier to see how team members are coping and if they need support or guidance or are just a little overloaded.

With break-out rooms available there are areas for conference calls, confidential chats or quiet thinking time for challenging drafting. 

It helps make leaders of the business visible, which is very important, and helps reinforce our one-firm approach as you stroll the floor moving from corporate to property with no obvious divisions.

I have no doubt that much of the debate is informed by preconceptions and personal experience but as an open-plan veteran I am convinced of the wider tangible benefits it brings to a law firm.

Ray Berg is a partner at Osborne Clarke

 

Cellular offices

Office

Individual offices tend to provide opportunities for junior lawyers to learn directly from more senior colleagues on an ongoing basis. The daily proximity not only encourages juniors to ask questions but also enables them to observe ‘soft’ skills such as the appropriate tone and manner taken by partners when engaging with clients. This office arrangement is equally invaluable to supervising lawyers – they can observe a junior lawyer’s strengths and development, which assists in ongoing informal feedback and leads to focused, accurate appraisals and ultimately contributes to a junior lawyer’s legal development. 

At Travers Smith, lawyers generally sit three to a room, with a partner, associate and trainee sharing an office. Working in this sort of environment can benefit a junior lawyer’s professional development and make it easier to deliver to the client. More informally, sharing an office encourages roommates to get to know one another closely, fostering a sense of camaraderie and friendship and removing any sense of hierarchy. 

Individual offices are also generally quieter – lawyers can escape the possible bustle of an open-plan set-up. With fewer distractions, it is easy to concentrate on your work at your desk.  It is also no hassle to make conference calls from your desk, so the room can hear and join in. 

Finally, lawyers working together in individual offices often work on the same matters and for the same clients. Junior lawyers are able, therefore, to see all elements of a deal rather than being limited to their discrete, assigned tasks. As well as improving an individual’s legal understanding, a cellular office can enhance consistency of approach, contributing to the quality of service ultimately provided to the client. 

Will Greaves is a trainee at Travers Smith

  • Which side do you fall on? Have your say in the comments section