Pictures of superhero costumes are emblazoned on the doors of the cupboards where wigs and gowns are stored. The boardroom has vivid purple carpet and silvery-bronze walls. Meals are produced from an industrial-style kitchen, hidden nearby. Office walls are glazed, breaking down visual barriers. Welcome to the startling new offices of Auckland legal firm - and Crown prosecutor - Meredith Connell, where 180 staff now roam their acoustically-rated floor among 1500 plants, under timber-lined ceilings, bathed in sunlight from giant skylights on the top floor of their 5-star, green-rated building. The site at the corner of Graham St and Victoria St on the fringe of the central business district - the same building occupied by Herald publisher NZME - is a long way from the city's traditional home of law practices, Shortland St. And the look of the new offices is worlds away from the stereotype of the traditional law practice, with separate offices and heavy furnishings. Instead of stepping into an old-school mahogany-lined office to have a one-on-one with your lawyer, you're now more likely to be invited to the white tiled cafe and bench-style seating, where other groups are having morning tea. When uniformed police visit, they're more likely to be sitting in a quiet furnished "pod" - like a couch surrounded by shoulder-height walls - or perching in the sun overlooking the harbour at bar-style furniture near the granite-floored reception area. Meredith Connell managing partner Steve Haszard says the aim was to be upmarket and sophisticated, but not lavish. It's a long way from Shortland St, geographically and psychologically. The area left by Meredith Connell - these days rebranded as MC - is no longer quite the legal hub it was. Haszard says the firm spent "some millions" on the 3200sq m level five of the new Graham St premises, on which it has taken out a 12-year lease. In Shortland St, 180 staff were spread across many floors. Separate offices reigned. People didn't accidentally bump into each other. Now, that has all changed. Seating is now open-plan, but with high acoustic ratings (even cupboard doors are acoustic panels) to keep distractions to a minimum. A double-glazed legal library with the highest-possible noise reduction level has been developed towards the Victoria St end of the floor.
Standing desks will be standard for us ... people say sitting is the next smoking - that's what I've heard."For us, it was a massive investment," says Haszard. "We needed to invest heavily in the next generation and have the ability to really future-proof this business." Standing desks have motors so the surface can be easily raised or lowered. Staff often stand in the mornings and sit through the afternoons. MC is not alone. Several other Auckland law firms are on the move, many abandoning their more traditional offices for open-plan premises. In December, Chapman Tripp announced it would leave the ANZ Centre in 2019 to become a foundation tenant of Precinct Properties' new 39-level PwC Tower at Commercial Bay, replacing the Downtown Centre. Russell McVeagh, in Shortland St's Vero building, will begin a major internal refurbishment towards the end of this year, creating open-plan offices. In October, Duncan Cotterill will leave the historic Central Post Office in the Britomart area for the Australis Nathan Building, a pair of refurbished commercial buildings - erected in 1903 and 1904 - between Customs St and Takutai Square. Scott Pritchard, chief executive of Chapman Tripp's landlord Precinct, says many of the changes are a response to new ways of working. "Law firms are putting a lot of thought into how they use their premises," he says. "Some still have a preference to retain offices while some seem focused on moving to an open plan regime."
We needed to invest heavily in the next generation and have the ability to really future-proof this business.John Coop, Warren and Mahoney chairman and principal, was Meredith Connell's project principal and is now playing the same role at Chapman Tripp. "The legal profession as a whole is progressing towards more open workplaces," he says. "However there are marked differences between the strategies and cultures of each legal practice." Internationally, offices are being changed by the desire for greater connectivity and collaboration among staff and by technological changes, says Coop. "It is the goals of the leaders and partners of each practice and the actual work they do each day that, within these wider changes, directly informs the workplace design outcomes we are creating," he says. "New Zealand's best litigator or litigation team, for example, needs a particular type of space to be effective and to do their very best work. "Whereas a legal team specialising in mergers and acquisitions will have different needs." In the case of Meredith Connell, says Coop, the leaders of the practice wanted "to be bold and move to a fully open-plan solution as part of a wider transformational shift - physically and culturally. They have achieved this. "So our approach has been to ensure that globally informed best practice is being applied, whilst at the same time ensuring that the personality, culture, and unique needs of each client " here in Auckland and NZ - are responded to." Andrew Poole, Chapman Tripp chief executive partner, says staying in the firm's existing premises would not have been desirable. "The firm's current premises in the ANZ Tower have served us well for 23 years but would have needed a major refurbishment, requiring alternative temporary accommodation to fit the firm's developing requirements. "Market demands and technology are rapidly changing the way lawyers work and interact with clients," says Poole. "This move is an opportunity to respond to those changes by creating a technologically smart and efficient working environment in the heart of Auckland's commercial centre. "The larger and more efficient floorplate of the tower will give us greater flexibility, enhancing collaboration and flexible working options for both our people and clients. This follows similar workplace design changes we have incorporated in our Wellington office and the modern workspace we will have in our new Christchurch building when we take up occupation there in the second half of 2016." David Hoare, Russell McVeagh's board chairman and the partner heading the premises committee, says the firm will remain on four floors of the Vero Building.