Law firms open up to new trends with office moves

This article was originally published in the Financial Times.

When top law firm DLA Piper moved its London headquarters last year, its lawyers sacrificed something long prized in the sector: private offices.

At the firm’s new building near St Paul’s Cathedral, most lawyers work in open-plan spaces. But there are perks to compensate: a range of extras will include jewellery making, painting and yoga classes in the office.

As a string of law firms approach the end of leases on their London headquarters, many are seizing the chance to move into modernised buildings that depart from the centuries-old stereotype of lawyers and secretaries in a warren of individual offices.

At least 15 law firms are seeking new premises in the capital, while this year is on track to be the busiest for law firm relocations since 2015, according to the tenant advisers DeVono Cresa.

“I can’t think of a time when we’ve had so many substantial [law firm] requirements in the last 20 years,” said Dan Gaunt, a partner at the property agents Knight Frank.

Richard Proctor, head of London tenant representation at Knight Frank, said lease expiries — when tenants can leave a building or renew — had led many law firms to realise their premises were no longer fit for purpose in an age of automation and agile working.

“Many of them have too much internal space where you used to have endless secretaries, and now that’s not the case,” he said.

The “magic circle” firm Linklaters is planning a move to a new tower at 20 Ropemaker Street in the City of London, where it will take about 350,000 square feet after more than two decades in nearby Silk Street, according to people briefed on the situation.

Another big firm, Freshfields, will move to floors 20 to 32 of a new tower at 100 Bishopsgate next year from its current austere stone building off Fleet Street.

Large firms including Hogan Lovells and Dentons are also looking at new premises, property agents said, along with US firms such as Kirkland & Ellis, currently in the “Gherkin” tower, and Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom — although some firms carrying out property searches may ultimately choose to stay where they are.

Law firms have been slower than other sectors to adopt open-plan office designs, partly because of the need for confidentiality.

But Chris Lewis, a partner at DeVono Cresa, said many were now realising that lawyers’ need to hold confidential conversations did not preclude open-plan and even desk sharing, provided soundproofed phone rooms were provided. Meanwhile, the cachet of the corner office is giving way to softer perks.

Mr Lewis said the move to open format was “partly because it’s seen as a more democratic use of space, but it’s also more efficient. All that lawyers tend to do, if they have space in their own office, is fill it with stuff.”

A looming shortage of new grade A offices in London has added to pressure on larger firms to move. “The bigger law firms are realising that due to the lack of [office] supply, they need to be preparing now, even if their lease event is three, four, five years away,” said Mr Proctor.

London lawyers' office moves graph

Other factors driving the movement are US firms expanding their UK presence, and a series of mergers and acquisitions such as the creation of BDB Pitmans last year and the three-way megamerger that created CMS. Some firms, such as Freshfields, are cutting staff numbers in the capital as they migrate selected functions to cheaper UK cities. 

Most firms are looking in the City of London, although the potential move by Skadden, one of very few firms based in the eastern financial cluster at Canary Wharf, will be closely watched.

For some firms, open-plan is still a step too far. “You’ve still got some US law firms with their hierarchical office structure, with different sized offices depending how important you are,” Mr Proctor said.

Freshfields has also rejected the open-plan format for lawyers, though not for business support staff. “The most hotly debated topic was whether lawyers would stay in offices,” said Olivia Knox, head of HR for London, Manchester and the MENA region at Freshfields. “There was a strength of feeling from client-facing lawyers that they still wanted quiet space to be working in.”

The firm’s new office will still have 21st-century touches: for example, leather furnishings will be banned to reduce Freshfields’ carbon footprint.

Firms are looking to extras they can offer new recruits. Law firm Cooley will take space in a vast new skyscraper at 22 Bishopsgate next year, with perks including a fresh food market and a meditation retreat and spa.

The talent attraction piece is very important,” said a senior individual at a City firm. “Law is a very competitive market — you see it in the salaries — and having a really good building when graduates come to see it for the first time can be key to attracting them.” 

Mr Lewis noted, however, that firms need to strike a fine balance in the eyes of visiting clients. “It’s balancing an office that looks great against looking like you are prudent and careful — and not charging too much in terms of fees.”