06 November 2012

Lawyers, open plan and offices

I've got an office now, and I'm excited. I didn't have one for the previous 4 1/2 years - instead, I was in an open plan organisation. We didn't have cubicles - we just had desks. Prior to that I had my own office for the previous 20 years of practise.

My conclusions here are based on time in an organisation with an AUD$7B market cap and an organisation with revenues/expenditure of about AUD$1.3B.

I didn't and don't like open plan:- personally, nor for lawyers, nor for anyone who has to think for a living.

Here are my observations about open plan for lawyers...


Open plan for lawyers is a mistake. Stop thinking about it right now.


Open plan probably made us less friendly, less collegiate and less disposed to spend quality non-work time together. I got sick of listening all day to people on the phone, people talking to people at desks, and seeing people around me. All I wanted to do was get away from them.


I thought I had really mastered the ability to tune out and not be affected by open plan. Now I'm out of that situation, I can clearly see that that was not the case - I had merely come to terms as best I could (and I think I was as good as if not better than most).

I write this blog piece having just spent the better part of two professional work days deep in very complex legislation, and I can see that I just could not have done that work in open plan - either to the level or quality or within the same time frame.

Break out rooms

These are terrible. You don't know whether a conversation at your desk is "breakout room-worthy" or not till part way through it. Then you interrupt the flow and say "let's go to a breakout room" but the closest ones are full. The conversation is damaged.

Going to a breakout room with managers or subordinates makes you look like you're going to trial. If you need to have a "chat" with a subordinate you can't nuance the meeting by waiting till they come to your office for another reason or are passing by. You've got to go and get them and drag them off to a breakout room or "for coffee."

Confidential phone calls

Yes, you can go to a breakout room to make a confidential call. This usually takes a few minutes extra because you have to marshall the documents you need, the phone number, a pen and pad. Of course, you won't have your computer with you in there, so you can't use it to take notes or look things up in the file shares or document management system. You probably won't have your entire paper file either.

But wait -  what if someone calls you on a confidential matter? Two choices - tell them to hang up and you'll call them back in five or so minutes (see previous paragraph), or try to do the extension-transfer-dance, but it will still take a few minutes (see previous paragraph).

Confidential meetings

These suffer from the same problem as phone calls, plus the added time and discontinuity of having to head off to a breakout room. As a bonus, everyone else gets to watch you in your glass-walled breakout room (it has to be glass walled, otherwise you'll be in a room with the equivalent ambience of a refrigerator crate).

Efficient use of space

I'm not sure of this, but I'm fairly confident that open plan does not use space any more efficiently than offices.

Human comfort

I have a small library of books that I need. I cost my employer a great deal. I spend a lot of time at work, and as a non-litigator these days I don't get the chance to get outside that much. I need space and comfort to deal with that. I like to talk to my colleagues without having to make what amounts to an appointment with a breakout room. I like a bit of personalisation of my environment, whether that be having music or the radio on sometimes, or a bit of artwork or Christmas lights.  All these things add up to a bit of comfort for someone who has a lot of responsibility, a long way to fall, and works long hours.

Open plan is anathema to lawyers. Don't do it.