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Victoria Mole
20 June, 2008  
Open plan - Closed mind

Vicki Mole finds open plan law firm architecture unattractive. It hinders attention to detail, analysis and clarity … but it’s perfect for yapping about Big Brother

imageIn A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf asks whether women are capable of producing work of the quality of male writers such as Shakespeare.

Woolf sits on the bank of the river, her train of thought distracted by the sight of a tailless cat, wishing she could sit in the library with her male counterparts away from the distractions that quash potential sparks of genius.

She concludes that “a woman must have money and a room of her own” if she is ever to participate as an equal in the literary world.

Money is bountiful at the Firm. Tailless cats not so much, but their modern day equivalent – secretaries yapping about Big Brother, heated arguments about the football and unanswered phones – are rampant.

A room of your own is a privilege for those above senior associate level. Everyone else is plonked into an open plan cattleyard that wins regular praise in architecture magazines and regular contempt from those who work in it.

The arguments for this arrangement are flimsy: promoting learning by osmosis, cultivating an environment where ideas can be shared, and reducing isolation in a profession with a 60 percent depression rate.

The learning argument might stack up if the traditional articled clerkship model was followed, whereby one principal takes a caterpillar of an articled clerk under her wing and nurtures her professional development so she blossoms into a beautiful butterfly of a lawyer.

It doesn’t work when that caterpillar is dumped in the middle of the word processing team and forced to achieve her billable hours while those around her discuss the merits of weight loss shakes.

Admittedly, an open plan environment is good for sharing ideas on the unfortunate occasion of team projects with other junior lawyers.

However, this is where meeting rooms come in.

For the five percent of the project where you discuss what you need to do, you go in there. For the remainder of the time as you plod though your allocated tasks, you need peace.

Lawyers (wacko special counsel aside) do not sell workshopped creative concepts, but methodically and diligently thought through assessments of situations, produced by one person and reviewed by another.

We pimp our attention to detail, our analysis, our clarity. This requires silence.

The social contact argument needs to be weighed against the difficulty of not pulling stupid faces whilst concentrating, having to hide in the toilets if a sad friend needs a hug and a cry and all the time spent recouping concentration after each interruption of news that it is raining.

Surely the interactions that results from a lawyer’s hourly caffeinate and wee breaks suffice?

Now if you’ll excuse me – it is heads-down, bums-up and headphones-on as I go back into hiding from the tailless cats (stopping, perhaps, for a coffee first on level 40 and a quick distracting gaze at that quality bard in Planning and Environment … ).

Toodle-oo, Vicki


Reader Comments

Posted by: Anonymous
Date: June 20, 2008, 12:22 am

Thank god, my firm hasn't gone open plan. From the partners to the paralegals, every legally-minded soul is blessed with their own space and door!!! - K
Posted by: Anonymous
Date: June 23, 2008, 11:56 pm

Not at mine. Even some senior associates on the floor. It's stupidly counter-productive but great fun if you have nothing to do! -RG