How a law firm turned moving house into a redesign that transformed the way staff work and strengthened its brand
BY NICK ROCKEL
Visitors to Blaney McMurtry LLP can be forgiven for thinking they've wandered into the pages of an architecture magazine, not the home of a midsize Toronto law firm. The three-floor, 75,000-square-foot space is devoid of puffy armchairs, dark oceans of wainscoting and other lawyerly throwbacks. In their place: a sleek, modern design with open vistas and an abundance of natural light. Blaney McMurtry built the premises from scratch in 2005, when it moved here from old digs it had inhabited since 1981. But according to partner Alex Mesbur, the biggest change in this wholesale redesign happened before work even started, when all lawyers at the firm consented to having 150-square-foot offices, compared to the industry norm of 500 or 600. "That's the most radical thing, that my partners so quickly agreed to try something very different," Mesbur says.
His colleagues said yes because they saw that cutting back on elbow room would have operational and economic benefits. Their decision made life easier for Toronto design house figure3, which won the contract to help Blaney McMurtry rethink the way it did business. Franca Rezza, the figure3 senior team leader who headed the nine-month project, explains that the company saw moving as a chance to revamp its working environment and create a more compelling client experience. By shrinking the lawyers' offices down to a uniform size, figure3 was able to standardize and update the entire workspace. In a brainstorming session with Rezza and her colleagues, Blaney McMurtry also embraced the idea of making a statement to the marketplace by overhauling its reception and client-services floor, which now includes a dual-purpose meeting and entertainment zone.
"What we're seeing as a consistent trend is that [our] clients are really starting to understand the power of brand, and they understand that their facility is a huge component of first impression," says Lisa Fulford-Roy, figure3's senior team leader, business development. A company with well-designed offices stands out from the competition, she adds.
Employers who overlook good office design may also be missing an opportunity to raise productivity, boost morale and keep staff. In March 2006, New York-based design and strategic-consulting firm Gensler surveyed 2,013 American office workers in eight industry groups about their work environments. Ninety percent of those polled said a better-designed workplace leads to better overall performance, and the same percentage believed that quality of office life is very important to job satisfaction. Meanwhile, almost nine out of 10 senior executives agreed that improving a company's workspace enriches the bottom line. On the downside, 40 percent of workers surveyed didn't think management cared about creating a more productive office, and one in five described their physical workplace as fair to poor. Two-thirds of respondents said they were more efficient when working closely with colleagues, but 30 percent confessed that their office design didn't encourage spontaneous collaboration and teamwork.
Blaney McMurtry was so enthusiastic about making changes that Mesbur and four other staff formed a group called the Space Cadets, who met with Rezza and her team weekly throughout the redesign. To ensure that there were no surprises, figure3 generated 3D graphical models of the new interior. The former space, which Rezza describes as tired and inefficient, belonged to a bygone era when each lawyer had her own assistant. After young recruits used to doing their own computer work came onboard, the place was littered with empty secretarial workstations.
To fix that, figure3 put lawyers and their support staff together in practice groups and introduced several litigation-preparation rooms. "There were opportunities for more collaborative work among people within the same practice group and more sharing of information," Rezza says. The open design of the new workplace also brightens everyone's day. Panels between secretarial stations are low, some corridors end in windows, and lawyers' offices have opaque-glass fronts that bring natural light into the interior of the building, where support staff sit.
As Mesbur notes, one-size-fits-all offices save on rent by accommodating more lawyers in less square footage than the old building would have. The company has had room to grow, and it's now easier and cheaper to shift people around. "If everybody has the same footprint of space, nobody gets irritated when they're asked to move or you rejig the way groups work," Mesbur says. In another cost-saving break with legal tradition, there are no customized offices. Like clerks and assistants, each lawyer has a standard set of modular furniture developed for the firm. Blaney McMurtry also took advantage of the move to install new filing systems and better integrate technology into its workplace, adding high-speed printers shared by lawyers and assistants.
If Blaney McMurtry's two practice floors are designed to be functional, the client floor below them is more of a showpiece. There, boardrooms for visitor meetings reflect what Fulford-Roy sees as a law-firm trend toward controlling those experiences. But the focus of the client floor is a congregation area off the main boardroom with its own bar and service area. Blaney McMurtry likes to entertain, and at night-with all the conference rooms along it thrown open-this hallway becomes a venue for cocktail parties and other events. "It brings their clients to them rather than taking them somewhere else," Rezza says. You can't buy that kind of advertising on TV.
Alex Mesbur, Blaney McMurtry
Franca Rezza and Lisa Fulford-Roy, figure3