Sven Milelli lives in the typical lawyer's world. For the moment.
Mr. Milelli's 16th-floor office, one of the larger ones that more senior partners get in the blue-chip national firm of McCarthy Tétrault LLP, gives him a private view of Vancouver's downtown from his three window bays.
Outside his door, cubicles for executive assistants are lined up along an interior corridor – the people working there only get glimpses of the skyline when a lawyer leaves a door open. Four floors below, the company's main boardroom is a study in restrained opulence, panelled in oak, with a table big enough to seat the 12 apostles twice over.
That's all about to change for Mr. Milelli and the partners, associates and executive assistants at McCarthy's Vancouver office. This branch, with about 150 staff, is about to move to a just-completed building where it will launch a North American experiment in a new kind of law office.
None of the lawyers will have windows to themselves. Instead, on each of the three floors, corridors will line the perimeter, with benches so people can sit and take in the views. There will be "patio" spaces in the corners, where groups of lawyers can gather to work together on projects or just one or two can settle down and spread out all their papers in one place.
Offices will be created in pavilions in the centre of each floor, with spaces where people can gather to brainstorm – or just talk. And, in an unusual move for the legal world, where hierarchy has been key, there won't be any difference in size or furnishings, the typical status markers.
"They're all going to be the same size, which is revolutionary," says Mr. Milelli, who specializes in mergers and acquisitions at McCarthy. "There's great symbolism in those equal offices."
The layout will also help, he says, with something that has become crucial to law-firm survival – collaboration, as clients, whose businesses operate on that model, expect to see the same from firms they now use as advisers for multiple issues.
This isn't quite what McCarthy planned originally. It was going to move to the new building at 745 Thurlow St., yes. Like other law firms that are shuffling around to new spaces in Vancouver's very mobile office market, the idea was to stick with tradition – something that a few lawyers would have preferred.
But the company's national directors were looking for a way to express what they see as a core value at McCarthy, its willingness to try new ways of doing law.
And its chief executive officer, Marc-André Blanchard, happened to visit a law office in Australia that showed him an example of how dramatically different law offices could be. He was so excited by what he saw, he sent the company's chief operating officer, Tracie Crook, to look at them and figure out how McCarthy could latch on to this new concept.
Those offices were designed by architect Bill Dowzer, of the national firm BVN, who has become a specialist in reimagining the way lawyers work.
"A lot of traditional law firms have a siloed world. There are traditionally two groups of people, one who has the light, one who doesn't," said Mr. Dowzer, on a recent trip to Vancouver where he is now working with both McCarthy and a second firm.
That hierarchical, siloed system works against the way the world is moving, in business, in law and in life, he and many lawyers say. Junior partners or associates want to be treated as equals and want to be mentored. Clients want to have a team of people working together on their file, not one department after another handling each specialty area separately (with all of the delightful impact that has on billing). Those clients are also coming to the office less frequently for meetings, preferring to communicate in all the new ways available. And the people working in law offices are spending long hours there, so they want a place that feels a little bit less institutional, a little more domestic.
"You spend long hours, so why does it have to be grey?" says Mr. Dowzer, who got rid of the small kitchens that law firms typically provide as strictly utilitarian, get-your-coffee-and-get-out spaces. Instead, he's created café-like spaces where people can bring their laptops from their offices and work.
Technology is also changing the kind of space law firms need to have. Law firms have typically dedicated a lot of space for a library and for files. But lawyers don't use the books so much as most of the information they require is available digitally; instead it's a place to confer with librarians. Files can be stored electronically. Clients can video-conference.
Ms. Crook said McCarthy, which is designing the same kind of space for a new Quebec City office, is trying to foster the sense of flexibility by allowing people to choose which kind of technology they want to use for their work – fixed computers, laptops, tablets, phones, paper, video-conferencing, whatever is invented next.
The new space Mr. Dowzer has designed for McCarthy has taken advantage of all that technology and those efficiencies – less space for files, conference rooms and libraries – with the result that the company has reduced the number of floors it will be leasing to three from four.
But it hasn't been totally smooth sailing. Mr. Dowzer and people at the law firms he's working with acknowledge that some lawyers are having a hard time with losing what they see as earned perks. And they also worry about a potential loss of privacy and confidentiality.
"The hardest part was communicating how this was going to be a positive for everybody," Ms. Crook said.
Mr. Dowzer agreed that, in Australia or Canada, "there are some people who will never change because the law profession is so rooted in the hierarchical world."
But, in the end, the majority of people in those same firms get excited about the new possibilities. Mr. Milelli said people are looking forward to the move early next year because they think it will speed up the transformation the company has been going through already.
"This move is just a further step along that way."
The lawyers at Miller Thomson LLP knew they were going to have to do something different when they moved to their new law offices – they had no choice.
The 160-person firm is moving into one giant, 48,000-square-foot floor of what used to be Eaton's flagship department store at Vancouver's central downtown intersection of Georgia and Granville streets. The dramatically remodelled building will also house both the high-end department store Nordstrom and a big new suite of Microsoft offices.
But although the redesign, by prominent Vancouver architect James Cheng, is adding many modern new features, including light wells coming down in the middle, it was still a department-store-sized space.
The firm rejected the idea at first, flummoxed by how to run a traditional law office with such an enormous amount of interior space.
"People said, 'No, we won't be able to have offices on the windows,' " says Karen Dickson, an office managing partner at Miller Thomson, which is operating on four non-contiguous floors in a building near the Supreme Court of B.C. building. "Then we circled back."
Ms. Dickson, whose firm is also getting Australian architect Bill Dowzer to design a radically new kind of law office, said she's the most interested in the way the design will allow for the kind of mentorship that young lawyers need.
"Associates want to suck the knowledge out of partners' brains. When I picture this new space, I just see a lot more interaction. I think it's going to create opportunities for us in ways we can't yet imagine."