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Not even a wall separates in-house lawyers from their colleagues at NRG Energy. Eight lawyers, along with the CEO and the rest of the company’s 230 employees, sit in a big sea of desks. The Princeton, N.J., company chose the open layout to foster collaboration and egalitarianism � and it’s not alone. More and more, corporations are eliminating private offices for lawyers, not only to save money but also to make space allocation more democratic. The change is jarring to some lawyers who rue the loss of privacy � and status � the open layout brings. But at NRG, the arrangement has fostered a better working environment, says General Counsel Timothy O’Brien. The company, an operator of power plants that emerged from Chapter 11 in 2003, relocated in December from Minneapolis. Lawyers had their own offices at the old headquarters, but as the company occupied seven floors of a skyscraper, it was cumbersome to arrange face-to-face meetings, he says. Now that everyone is in one 47,000-square-foot space, it’s easy to know who is at his or her desk at any given moment, O’Brien says. Meetings and other private sessions are held in nearby “quiet rooms.” O’Brien says that at first, employees treated the open space like a school cafeteria, talking to others across the room. But, more recently, it has taken on the atmosphere of a college library. “Everybody in the company has been learning to work in the new environment. The more we get used to it, the more we like it,” says O’Brien, adding that the new layout also helps the legal department interact with finance and marketing executives. CEO David Crane proposed the open layout to express the company’s open, non-hierarchical values, O’Brien says. THE WISDOM OF THE CUBICLE Whatever the reasons, corporations are seeing wisdom in cubic design. A recent report of a study conducted by management consultant Altman Weil found that 7 percent of law departments use cubicles exclusively, another 16 percent have a mix of cubicles and offices, and 18 percent don’t have cubicles but may add them in a year. Large companies were more likely than small ones to put lawyers in cubicles, according to the survey, which was sent to 223 companies and received responses from 68. Recruiters say the cubicle trend has picked up in the past two years. Sandy Mannix, of Abelson Legal Search in Philadelphia, says they are more common at financial institutions and most often assigned to junior attorneys. Transactional lawyers are more likely to sit in cubicles than those practicing litigation or labor and employment law, says Mannix. OVERCOMING RESISTANCE Companies contemplating cubicles for lawyers should not underestimate the effect on recruiting and retention, says Daniel DiLucchio, author of the Altman Weil survey report. He says the survey found that 27 percent of companies whose lawyers sit in cubicles say the change has made recruitment and retention harder, and 13 percent said a lawyer had left the company over the issue. Recruiters now routinely disclose when an opening requires sitting in a cubicle, prompting a few applicants to withdraw from consideration. “There’s a big push back. Lawyers don’t want to work in cubicles � they view it as demeaning,” says DiLucchio. Experienced lawyers are more likely than younger ones to object, says Mannix. She thinks resistance will decrease in time. “I suspect it’s a little like the early days of office computers, when attorneys suddenly said, ‘What do you mean, I don’t have my own secretary?’ ” Mannix says. David Garber of Princeton Legal Staffing Group has also seen job applicants balk at sitting in a cubicle, but he sees no large-scale damage to such companies. “There are always many, many people that want to make the move in-house,” Garber says. “As such, I don’t think it makes it harder to recruit” for law departments with cubicles. Another issue to be addressed is privacy. Detractors question how lawyers uphold client confidentiality while working at a cubicle, though NRG’s O’Brien says there have been no problems in that regard. He cites an ethical office culture that respects confidentiality, and points out that an office door is no guarantee of confidentiality against someone motivated to violate it. O’Brien says cost was not a factor in choosing an open layout. But Rees Morrison, a law department management consultant at Hildebrandt International in Somerset, N.J., questions the merits of eliminating private offices to improve communication. “I don’t think you can make the argument that it’s good for the company,” Morrison says. Cubicles are still the exception in New Jersey legal departments, according to a New Jersey Law Journal sampling. Of a dozen law departments questioned, only the New Jersey Manufacturers Insurance Co. in West Trenton acknowledged assigning attorneys to cubicles. For more than 20 years, the company has provided cubicles for about half its in-house attorneys, says spokesman Patrick Breslin. He says those assigned cubicles are workers’ compensation attorneys who spend most of their time in court. Charles Toutant is a reporter for the New Jersey Law Journal, the ALM publication where this article first appeared.

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