New Zealand Law Society - Out with the old and in with the new

Out with the old and in with the new

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The changing face of law offices and courthouses

The traditional image of a law office and a courthouse has been changing, much of it driven by the need to introduce and incorporate new technology, but also to transform the layout into a less rigid theatre of work, reflecting a flexible 21st Century workplace.

But then the face of law has also changed with women now making up over 50% of all practising lawyers.

So one might argue that the need for mahogany row and cigars is becoming as extinct as the moa.

Inside Meridith Connell officesInside the new Meredith Connell offices

And in courts a new variation on the traditional courthouse may have been built in Canterbury following Mother Nature’s decision to rearrange its biggest city.

International architectural design practice Warren and Mahoney are responsible for the New Age $300 million Justice and Emergency Services Precinct in Christchurch.

They’re also the architects behind the New Zealand Supreme Court in Wellington and the additions to and rationalisation of Auckland’s High Court.

In February, LawTalk published a feature about the state of New Zealand’s courthouses.

While the story celebrated the restoration of historic buildings such as Dunedin’s Stuart Street Court, it also revealed problems with the courthouse facilities in Rotorua, which were described as a disgrace by some lawyers. The courthouses in Tauranga, Whakatane, Opotiki, Gisborne and Napier were all criticised, and in Palmerston North one lawyer described the courthouse as an amalgam of modern and outdated facilities. Overall, the feedback was direct and colourful, but then it was provided by lawyers who work in those courtrooms daily.

Even in the capital the courthouses were described as adequate but not impressive.

In Kaikoura, the courthouse burned down about eight years ago and has not been replaced and hearings have been moved to the Memorial Hall.

Ministry of Justice figures show there are currently 65 buildings which operate as courthouses or hearing centres. Of these 32 are stand-alone District Courts, with 15 buildings accommodating both District and High Courts. There are 12 “District Court Hearing Courts” – which handle short hearings no longer than a day.

The future of courtrooms can be found in Christchurch

While the 2011 earthquakes flattened parts of the city, they also provided an opportunity to create something unique and inspirational in the justice sector.

The new Justice Precinct includes the most modern District Courtrooms in the country. It doesn’t merge the past with the present like so many of the older buildings. Arguably, the building is what the future of courtrooms should resemble.

While modernising tired old buildings does work, it’s perhaps a temporary measure and not nearly as effective as a new purpose-built precinct that can withstand similar earthquakes to those that destroyed much of Christchurch.

The Justice Precinct is designed to operate with little disruption in the aftermath of such a disaster.

Warren and Mahoney’s Justice Sector lead, Nick Warring, says the company partnered with Cox Architecture in Australia which was responsible for the design of two new justice precincts there. They looked at trends in France, England and Singapore when coming up with the design for the courthouse part of the precinct.

Mr Warring says when designing the precinct and courthouse they had to look at things from a lay person’s perspective and what sort of experience they should expect.

“There was some fundamental operational requirements that needed to be provided such as security and separation between the various user groups. The safety of people at the courthouse, good acoustics, heating, and ventilating.”

He says for many people it could be the first time they’ve been inside a courthouse environment and they’re likely to be anxious and stressed.

“We wanted to design a building that would lower those feelings. Traditionally, these buildings were somewhat defensive, intimidating and introverted, so we wanted to turn that around into an environment that is open, transparent and accessible.”

Mr Warring says what they didn’t want to do is design a building that forced people to have to walk through a narrow funnel network of corridors.

“That’s traditionally been the case. We wanted people to be able to approach the building from the outside and be able to know clearly where to enter the building and be able to see through high levels of glazing and generous public spaces where they need to move to within the building,” he says.

What to do about the other courthouse buildings

Nick Warring says that’s a big question the Ministry of Justice is facing, but a dilemma they could likely solve.

“Christchurch was a rare opportunity in that it was a green-fields development because you’re building from the ground up.”

Mr Warring says with existing buildings it would be a case of applying those fundamental principles and seeing whether the space could be reorganised to give the amenity back to people using the courthouse.

“We’d look at creative ways to effectively adapt existing building to deliver a similar experience to that of Christchurch. Auckland High Court is an example of where we’ve successfully upgraded an existing building,” he says.

The transformation of law offices

Warren and Mahoney Principals Scott Compton and Andrew Tu’inukuafe lead the team that has also recently completed projects to refurbish the Auckland offices of Russell McVeagh and to provide new offices for Meredith Connell. Both refurbishments have led to open-plan, agile environments that support a cultural transformation that aims to shatter the perception of a rigid, old school law firm.

Referring to the advance of technology, Mr Compton says it has freed up space in law offices, by making them paperless.

“It has enabled much of the research and documentation to be digitised and it untethers the staff from the necessity of having a large amount of space. That gives an organisation a choice as to whether they want to operate in an open plan environment or in an office. Do you go agile or remain in a traditional mould?”

Mr Compton says some legal practices want to shake off the stuffiness that appears associated with the business by replacing mahogany row with the lighter sit/stand workstations.

“Health and well-being and using technology to unshackle you and provide you with the ability to be able to share information better with partners and people on your team has become a priority for a lot of firms,” he says.

Mr Compton says simple changes lead to much greater collaboration in a workplace.

But convincing a business that it is suffocating in tradition that change is needed isn’t an easy or cheap job.

However, as Andrew Tu’inukuafe, asks, what is the cost of not changing direction?

“What we are finding is that people are coming to us already sold on the idea of moving to a much more open work environment. They’ve seen other models that have worked. They’re getting a sense that, particularly, their younger staff work in a different way. Much of the change is more difficult for the partners and senior associates than other staff,” he says.

One of the challenges, he says is that many of these people have worked under the same structure for a long time, slowly making their way to a large corner office, only for it not to be there when they get to that career point.

But Mr Compton doesn’t view that as a tough obstacle to navigate around.

“Historically, the support staff would generally be in a partner’s offices hearing an important phone call, so it’s a bit of a myth that an office was about acoustics, privacy or status. Studies we did showed that the insulation in a lot of buildings was not great, the acoustics were not great and 9 out of 10 times the door to the partner’s office was wide open anyway,” he says.

Mr Compton says attaining the office was about hierarchy and the companies that are dissolving the office are dissolving the idea that good real estate is a goal you should aim for as part of being lawyer in a firm.

“It’s become more focused about how you do your work than where you work,” he says.

A modern office makes a statement to clients

“Meredith Connell’s physical transformation of their office happened at a time when their internal structure changed along with their external marketing,” says Andrew Tu’inukuafe.

But considering that firm’s long and rich history, the complete 180 degree turn may have caught some by surprise.

“However it’s an example of a new and dynamic future driven approach,” he says.

He says the legal profession is an extremely competitive market and what firms are doing is trying to create a unique point of difference.

“It’s about understanding who they are as lawyers, how they work, and what the client experiences and how the experience should be for their employees.”

‘Diversity’ also driving change

Having a widespread public appeal and making strides to get a workforce that is diversely representative of age, gender, lifestyle and culture is also affecting the decisions being made by law firms, according to Scott Compton.

He says new lawyers are more aware of social media and the impact it can have, and the struggles of working in a data-based world.

“That’s a very different type of lawyer to the smart minds of the past.”

He says facilities at law firms also need to be able to cater for working parents working irregular hours and areas where people can freshen up, eat, drink or take time out.

“Wellbeing is a huge focus now. Back in the old days it was generally men sort of running a ship that operated 24/7. What was it that Gordon Gekko said in Wall Street, ‘lunch is for wimps’? That’s not the case anymore. It’s about putting your health first, your performance will reflect that you’re doing well and we should be able to provide you with the facilities that you need regardless of where you are in your life and ensure that you will be able to work for us with support,” he says.

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