UK law firms lead the way in adapting to agile working

Angela Lowe - CBRE

Law firms across EMEA regions display only limited adoption of new workplace strategies, with the UK leading the way in implementing agile working options, according to a survey of major law firms from across the EMEA regions by CBRE, the world’s leading real estate advisor.

CBRE’s Law in EMEA report offers the first ever benchmark analysis of the legal sector internationally. Whilst mixed agility arrangements (a combination of fixed and shared desks) are shown to be strongly associated with lower rents per person relative to local market rents, there is limited take up of this approach amongst legal firms outside the UK.

The legal sector is widely viewed as fairly traditional in its patterns of office occupation, and unlikely to be an early adopter of new or innovative workplace practices. In CBRE’s EMEA Occupier Survey 23% of professional services firms, including lawyers, said that they were not using or considering flexible space use compared with less than 10% of all respondents. Only 12% of professional services firms reported having a User Experience strategy, compared with 23% of corporates as a whole. At the same time, law firms are faced with many of the same pressures as others to manage space efficiently and to provide working environments that will appeal to scarce talent.

London leads the way in the percentage of law firms offering some form of agile workspace (60%). This is followed by Dublin (50%), Edinburgh (25%) and Manchester (12.5%). The only other EMEA city to offer any level of agile office space is Brussels (12.5%). Across the sample, 89% of offices are based on fixed seating arrangements, where all staff have assigned seating.

Across the 15 markets analysed, the average space allocated per person is 232 sq ft (21.6 sq m), however the range is significant. Law firms in Brussels record the highest space allocation per person, at 506 sq ft (47sq m) and Edinburgh the lowest, at 129 sq ft (12sq m). As expected, there is a relationship with rent cost, with firms in some of the more expensive cities (for example London, Dublin and Dubai) occupying space at a higher density than less expensive cities. However, there are examples where this is not the case, for instance, Paris and Moscow, two of the most expensive markets, demonstrate more generous space allocations than the overall average.

The average rent per person, based on current rent outgoings of the law firms analysed, is €10,833 pa, ranging from €3,300 pa in Edinburgh to over €19,000 pa in Paris. While this is partly explainable by market rent variation across the cities analysed, this correlation is not uniform. For example, in Dublin and Dubai, law firms pay less rent per person than the market average, despite being at the more expensive end of the market rent scale, demonstrating the use of more efficient space standards to manage occupational costs.

The report also examines workplace trends emerging in the legal sector in response to its growing focus on the ability to attract and retain key talent. These include:

  • Democratisation of space via the break-down of traditional layouts which can promote office hierarchies and silos.
  • Growing emphasis on the importance of collaboration, for instance through the introduction of knowledge-sharing spaces.
  • The quest for innovation as offices become more high-tech with the latest AV tools integrated.
  • Improved workplace experience, both in terms of client experience and in enabling ease of work for lawyers and support staff.
  • Experimentation with different real estate solutions, including remote hubs to offer further flexibility for commuting staff.

Angela Lowe, senior director in CBRE’s Edinburgh office, commented: “With the legal sector having generally favoured more traditional patterns of office occupation, it is interesting to see that some firms are beginning to move towards more open and agile environments.

“In Edinburgh’s legal sector, large property moves have been driven by lease events giving established practices the opportunity to ‘right size’ and relocate into more efficient space. Notable examples include Womble Bond Dickinson taking space in the newly completed 2 Semple Street development and both Pinsent Masons and Brodies committing to Capital Square which is still under construction. The market is also benefitting from the appearance of new entrants such as Burges Salmon, which has taken space in Atria, and some merger activity.

“Increasingly we are seeing the drive to move to more interesting dynamic workspaces in high quality, sustainable buildings being driven by the talent agenda as well as the need to contain costs. I expect this will be the catalyst for change and influence demand in our markets.”