Miller Thomson’s legal knowledge centre in downtown Vancouver is driving greater collaboration, connectivity and client service
Miller Thomson LLP is one of Canada’s preeminent business law firms, boasting more than 525 lawyers working out of 12 offices across the country. In addition to providing both its national and international clients with top-notch business law, advocacy and personal legal services, Miller Thomson prides itself on its innovative, out-of-the-box approach, be it to solving client needs or conducting daily operations, fueled by its “desire to be different”.
THE SEARCH FOR A NEW OFFICE
So when Miller Thomson’s Vancouver office approached the end of its lease on its 67,000-square-foot office in 2015 and set out to find its new home, Miller Thomson used the relocation as a platform to demonstrate its progressive culture and explore space options it – and the rest of the legal industry, for that matter – had never previously considered.
The move was an ambitious undertaking that would give way to several key discoveries – even welcome surprises.
“We looked at 12 to 14 buildings, but people just weren’t excited about them,” said Mike Walker, Managing Partner with Miller Thomson Vancouver. “We knew we wanted something different for our space, but we didn’t know what different looked like.”
Main Boardroom can transition from a private to an open space.
Colin Scarlett, Executive Vice President with Colliers International and head of the company’s national law firm practice group, along with colleague Dan Jordan, helped Miller Thomson determine its concept of “different”. Scarlett has visited 19 cities around the world to date, learning about the business of law and seeing first-hand the impact of real estate trends and space design on the profession. “Knowing where the legal industry was headed, we challenged Miller Thomson to think differently,” he said.
“We wanted to be more collaborative,” Walker began. “We’re knowledge specialists, so we wanted to more seamlessly facilitate new ideas and information transfer: Our younger associates wanted to learn from our more senior lawyers, needed advice on legal issues when working on files. Walls, stairs and lawyers enclosed in their offices got in the way of all that, quite literally.”
Miller Thomson also sought to have the space reflect what the firm stands for and what sets it apart from the competition. “We see ourselves as part of the community and we take energy from collaborating with clients and from their resulting success. So our office had to cater to our clients,” Walker explained. “We also wanted to be more prominent in the legal market itself with space that would get the competition talking about us and pique the interest of great lawyers at other firms with a similar perspective, energy and entrepreneurial spirit.”
“Office space can be a powerful brand and identity statement to clients, other lawyers considering a move, students and internal staff,” said Scarlett. “Miller Thomson’s new Vancouver office was to be a catalyst – they were ready to make a bold move.”
Miller Thomson’s vision led the team back to one of the buildings they had originally viewed with Scarlett and Jordan a year prior: 725 Granville, a Cadillac Fairview Corporation redevelopment, then known as the future Canadian flagship location of upscale retailer Nordstrom. Signing on as the building’s first office tenant, the firm seized the “uncommon opportunity” to house its entire workforce on a single 48,000-square-foot floor – the 4th floor, to be exact – in a building on Georgia and Granville, ideally situated above two rapid transit lines in the heart of downtown Vancouver, blocks from the financial district where law firms typically locate.
This move would essentially change the way Miller Thomson’s professionals work and serve clients, and make way for a workspace design never before seen in the North American legal industry.
DESIGNING THE LEGAL KNOWLEDGE CENTRE
Not unlike the firm’s search for the perfect space, the design of the said space took considerable time to complete. In fact, the team underwent the design process twice before achieving their optimal setup.
Open meeting space with the large kitchen and lounge space in the background.
“The first design didn’t energize people,” explained Karen Dickson, Senior Business Law Partner with Miller Thomson Vancouver and former Managing Partner actively involved in the design phase. “We were missing something and we eventually realized we had been too attached to the traditional law office standards – and the blueprints we were seeing reflected it. We were essentially asking our design firm to design us a law office.”
Miller Thomson decided to let go of its notion of how a law office should look, and proceeded to ask its design team, BVN, to “show what they can do with the space”.
Before even putting any lines to paper, the BVN team talked to 145 Miller Thomson employees to obtain insights on how they worked and ideas on how to best tailor their new office. The strategy proved worthwhile: The combination of Miller Thomson’s “desire for different”, its employees’ input and BVN's expertise resulted in a much-buzzed-about “legal knowledge centre”, the first of its kind in Canada, designed to foster expertise, connectivity, and employee and client engagement.
TECH OFFICE OR LAW FIRM?
Miller Thomson Vancouver moved into its new space in March 2017.
“Our clients say our space looks more like a tech office than a law firm,” said Dickson.
Indeed, with an open-concept layout; high, unfinished ceilings; interior office pavilions; modular workstations; a café; a loft; and a central area that serves as both an expansive meeting space and a theatre, bleachers and all, just to name a few features, Miller Thomson’s Vancouver office has set a new bar in law office design.
One of the many breakout areas throughout the office
The space is very much like a town, complete with streets (corridors), neighbourhoods (separate working zones with a handful of enclosed offices), even a town square (a large, landscaped atrium where employees congregate and have spontaneous dialogue).
One of the biggest shifts the firm made – a move that truly broke the mold – was dramatically reducing the number of lawyer offices, and having the majority of employees work out in the open, with no walls between work stations. Given the profession that equates a private office with status, Walker was pleasantly surprised by employees’ openness to the concept.
And those who had expressed concern with the new layout have since shared that they do not miss their former office. “Some were anxious at first,” said Walker. “It’s understandable, given our industry and the confidential nature of our work. But we addressed this concern by incorporating private rooms firm members can use for sensitive conversations and such.”
THE CASE FOR A DIFFERENT KIND OF SPACE
Miller Thomson has inhabited its new space for all of a few months, but already, the firm is experiencing the positive impact of the move.
“Our space has become a bit of a hive,” Walker observed. “People are interacting more than they have in a long time. At any given time, I see up to a dozen employees working at one of our open areas and discussing files. There’s more visibility to what we’re all doing and with it, a stronger sense of industry and an intensity of focus one might not have expected to result from such a redesign.”
Employees have also never been so mobile, agile and responsive, thanks to access to the latest tablet technology, boardroom space and quiet rooms wired to support exceptional video collaboration. The increased connectivity is in turn elevating productivity and client service.
Main reception is open and inviting to clients
The space is likewise having its intended effect on recruitment efforts. The new office is proving to be a lure for top talent, figuring prominently in discussions with potential employees, according to Walker. In fact, a partner who recently joined the firm had outwardly stated being impressed that Miller Thomson had “embarked on a move so bold and uncharacteristic of a law firm”.
The pride that comes with working at one of the most lauded workspaces in the industry compels Miller Thomson’s lawyers to encourage clients to visit their offices. Taking full advantage of the legal knowledge centre’s programming, clients get a real sense of the space – and culture – dedicated to leveraging combined expertise and an innovative approach to deliver effective legal solutions.
Miller Thomson, with its new Vancouver space, is altering how people perceive not just the firm, but the law profession itself. And while according to Walker, “One wouldn’t ordinarily look to a law firm to pioneer office design,” the industry, clients and recruits are closely watching Miller Thomson, eager to see its next game-changing move.