The first in a series of articles on the everyday challenges facing managing partners

Office space and staff are two of the major costs that any business must consider, particularly law firms. Since the pandemic, many firms have debated what proportion of the office they really need and whether or not they should even have an office at all.

Vijay Parikh

Vijay Parikh

The firms that fared best were those that already had agile working policies (fortunately, we were one of them), and firms that not only invested in their IT infrastructure over the years, but also put trust in their employees to work remotely or in between different offices long before the pandemic began.

We are in a situation now where many firms, regardless of how quick they were to move initially, have become thoroughly used to remote- or hybrid-working. At the same time, the seriousness of the pandemic has lessened, and staff are increasingly being encouraged to return to the office.

This raises difficult business questions for law firms – do we keep all the office space we have currently? And for those which may have been considering slashing office space as part of a move to hybrid, is that still the decision we should be taking?

There is no blanket one-size-fits-all answer to these questions, but I would urge any law firm considering a reduction in office space to tread carefully.

Physical space can and does have a huge impact on culture and the way lawyers are encouraged to work. Cutting office space can have a larger impact on the workforce than many businesses realise. My view is that, in many instances, businesses should look at rethinking and repurposing their space, rather than just cutting it.

To relate our own experience, Harold Benjamin recently moved from a 1990s-built three-storey office block with individual rooms for all the lawyers, into an open-plan modern office space. The thought of transitioning was quite difficult for some. ‘After reaching the pinnacle of your career, you’ve now gone from having your own office to working in a call centre!’, the wife of one of our partners commented to her husband.

I knew the transition was not going to be easy and, while I had always valued working in close proximity with my team and being able to share ideas in open space quickly and efficiently, others preferred having their own office. The change was either going to bring the firm together or result in open warfare, particularly because transitioning to a shared, open space put our lawyers in an environment where they could be heard by their colleagues and were exposed for all to see.

Was I concerned though? Not one bit. My view is that people’s behaviours change depending on who they are surrounded by. Funnily enough, the partner who was deemed by his wife to be working in a ‘call centre’ took a call from a phone that was ringing at the desk of one of his colleagues shortly after the office transition took place. He immediately located his colleague, and the call was properly received. In that one moment, the move and all my reasons for instigating it were proven to me to be a success. The call was answered and immediately passed onto the intended recipient. The client experience had improved. Then, as time passed, individuals across departments met for lunch and coffee in the kitchen and breakout areas where previously they would not have met at all, separated by floors or their own room.  Even the odd romance blossomed.

Over the past two years, many people have struggled with their mental health too. These issues have often been directly caused by not communicating with other people. We are human. We need company and we need to meet our colleagues regularly and feel as though we are really a part of something – a family, a community or even a business.

While I am not saying that my own experiences will be perfectly replicated for anybody else who decides to repurpose rather than reduce their office space, it was enough to convince me that focusing too much on trying to reduce costs through obvious means is not always the correct course of action. Sometimes savings to a business’s bottom line can be delivered by taking a longer-term view, building a healthy and efficient business culture, and focusing on the people within a company rather than the ‘things’.

Saving cost is one thing, but building a successful working environment and culture in the long term is priceless. It will deliver far more value than a simple reduction in office space ever could. That is why I urge any law firm manager to think twice before making the ‘obvious’ call of reducing their office space.


Vijay Parikh is managing partner of Harold Benjamin, London