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Forget mahogany row – modern law firms are shaking off the old traditions and opting for a more lively, transparent workplace

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It is probably fair to say old traditions die hard, and there's no more established traditions than those surrounding the legal fraternity.

The conservative, hierarchical nature of conventional law offices owes much to a sense of history and perceived culture. Senior partners, for example, are invariably ensconced within large mahogany offices – often far removed from associates and junior staff.

But it's a culture that's changing, as evidenced by the new offices of Auckland law firm Minter Ellison Rudd Watts. As one of the first tenants in the new Lumley Centre high rise in Auckland, the firm took the opportunity to explore different options for the workplace.

Senior partner Phil Creagh says Minter Ellison commissioned Australian company DEGW to work on space planning, in conjunction with Craig Craig Moller Auckland.

"Our former offices comprised nine awkwardly configured floors in the BNZ Tower," Creagh says. "The fit-out, which dated back to the mid 1980s, was very traditional and hierarchical. Large partner offices with solid walls, and slightly smaller associates' offices, were positioned on the perimeter of the building. People could hide in their offices and were virtually invisible to each other.

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"The traditional law office is dark timbered and a little subdued and hushed. We wanted to get right away from that culture. We are a service organisation and we don't feel that way of operating is appropriate to our business today."

Creagh says the firm's brief to the designers was to create an environment that was a little edgy and a lot more exciting. The design needed to encourage staff interaction and have the flexibility to accommodate change and expansion.

The result is a transparent, open-plan workplace on three levels, which completely overturns traditional expectations.

Designer Jodie Moller says the vibrant, contemporary design reinforces Minter Ellison's progressive, forward-thinking business philosophy. But the design does give a passing nod to tradition – the lift lobby is lined with parquet black bean timber. Rich timber accents are also evident in other areas, where they contrast a distinctive white and charcoal palette.

"The reception, however, has a strong visual impact," says Moller. "This is partly due to large, commissioned artworks, and partly due to the mix of materials, which include a stainless steel ceiling and polished bluestone floor."

Modern leather sofas and a backlit reception desk illuminating the floor and ceiling enhance the overall effect.

The art is a significant feature of the fit-out – three large sliding art panels can be moved along a track to divide or define specific areas. They also allow the firm to host art exhibitions and client evenings.

"The art is not meant to intimidate," says Creagh. "It is more a reflection of an energetic, youthful partnership that is going places and not simply resting on last century's established traditions. In line with this approach, we have embraced the latest technology for the fit-out."

It is the transparent, open-plan offices that created the biggest change for employees, however. Clustered in pods, each featuring four partner and associate offices, with a collection of generously sized workstations on the perimeter, the new layout ensures every staff member can enjoy the spectacular views.

"Just as importantly, staff are visible to each other," says Creagh. "Increased communication and interaction breaks down the barriers to cross referral, which in turn, helps the firm utilise its expertise to provide the best possible service to clients."

Staff interaction is also encouraged by a communal café, positioned to maximise the harbour views. The café doubles as a bar, so it can be used for staff functions, or after-work drinks.

"With its bright red accents, the café is a fun, lively space," says Moller. "It was also a way to give something back to employees who have lost individual offices or perceived privacy."

In terms of space, Creagh estimates the new premises are 50% more efficient.

First published date: 12 April 2006

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Credit List

Location Minter Ellison Rudd Watts, Lumley Centre, Auckland
Architect Craig Craig Moller
Auckland; design team Gordon Moller, Jodie Moller, Alyssa Miles, Craig Butler, Fran Lynch and Jonathan Gibb; space planning by
DEGW (Sydney); design team Chris Alcock and Belinda Hall
Project manager RCP
Engineer Beca
Quantity surveyor Rider Hunt
Construction company Fletcher Construction Interiors
Fire consultant Holmes Fire & Safety
Acoustic engineers NDY
Window and door joinery Pacific Doors, Cavity Sliders, Hufcor Operable Walls, Metropolitan Glass
Hardware JFSB from Halliday & Baillie; Katalog Kat handles; Manet sliding track from Metropolitan Glass
Tiles Belgian bluestone from Design Source; Aparisa tiles from European Ceramics
Flooring Source Mondial Zurich carpet
Ceiling Stainless steel from Weldrite
Joinery Millbrook Furniture; Sharp & Page; Ultra Office Systems
Veneers Black bean veneer from Interion
Client floor art collection Starkwhite Gallery
Sliding art panels Weldrite
Glazing Metropolitan Glass
Paints Resene
Lighting ECC
Blinds NZ Window Shades
Heating/air conditioning Economech
Audiovisual systems ProVision
Workstations Schiavello Ultimet system from Kada Commercial Furniture
Office chairs Formway; Kada Commercial Furniture
Café furniture Matisse; Kada Commercial Furniture
Banquette seating Ovation Design
Commercial kitchen and bar Wildfire
Kitchen/café equipment F&P; Skope; Espresso Direct