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Comment: Say what you like, City practices taking on larger real estate is a good sign

If upgrading your square footage is any litmus test of how City firms feel about the future then a raft of them including DLA Piper, Bird & Bird and Field Fisher Waterhouse (FFW) can be said to be in confident mood.

As reported by Property Week on Tuesday (11 June), top Global 100 firm DLA is the most recent UK firm looking to expand its City office space, hiring Jones Lang LaSalle (JLL) to carry out a search for up to 200,000 sq ft of space, an increase on the 110,000 sq ft office it currently occupies in Noble Street.

Last week, top 40 UK firm FFW reportedly placed a bid to take on several floors of a Thames-side site, and Bird and Bird, which recently announced a turnover increase of 6%, last month took on 142,500 sq ft of office space at Great Portland Estates’ New Fetter Lane office building. Hill Dickinson, Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan and Gateley all increased their City space late last year.

On the one hand, no real trend can be read into the upgrades as many have either been driven by firms’ need to consolidate multiple sites or move out of old, no longer fit for purpose buildings. DLA, which currently operates out of two bases in London, is looking to bring both offices under one roof prior to the expiry of its current leases. Bird & Bird, meanwhile, is consolidating three into one.

Furthermore, amidst only fledgling signs of economic recovery in Europe, nor should the moves be taken as a sign of City law firms being over confident. Many firms are deeply aware of client perception and JLL director Richard Proctor said: ‘I don’t see a trend of people taking extravagant office space. They are saying that they have got to strike the balance between appearing professional without clients asking why their office looks so expensive.’

All this aside, the expansions are nonetheless a positive sign and Perry said: ‘We have seen a lot of growth in the last few years, the firm has a lot of ambitious plans, we are very confident for the future.’

One trend that has arisen out of the moves is more visible creativity in the way City practices are using their space.

Proctor said: ‘All law firms are looking at ways they can use their space more effectively, include subletting space they don’t use to reduce their overheads.’

Perry added: ‘I suspect that there’s been a movement in the nature of the space that firms wish to use for direct client use so I think certainly we are looking to have much more imaginative options for our client facing area.’

While this may be so, only a handful of firms including Addleshaw Goddard, Reynolds Porter Chamberlain and Eversheds are taking the plunge by going open plan. At least one Magic Circle firm has considered and dismissed the idea of dispensing with their closed office space, and US firms’ use of larger offices to reward those higher up the hierarchy means they will be even further behind.

‘It will take a long time for the large firms, particularly US firms, to move to an open plan model,’ Proctor says.