Winston Churchill observed: ‘We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.’ We might wonder what he would have to say about the typical set of barristers’ chambers, many of which have hardly changed since his day. Rich in culture, history and spirit, they are inextricably associated with charismatic old buildings, libraries of beautifully bound books, traditional furnishings and piles of papers wherever you turn. The advantages of a modern premises are (literally) plain to see, but have hardly been adopted with alacrity by the Bar. Can a set of chambers break away from its traditional environment without damaging the heritage that has been built up over decades? Can members of chambers and staff learn to work and thrive in a more contemporary home?

1GC|Family Law was based at 1 Garden Court in the Temple for 29 years. We had a great deal of affection for our building, where some of our members had spent their entire careers. Nonetheless, however cherished, it could not provide us with what we needed to continue to flourish: it was no longer fit for purpose. The days of seeing clients in cramped airless rooms were long gone and it was necessary to improve our technology significantly beyond the capacity of a Dickensian building. We knew that we had to consider other options. In 2017, we were fortunate to identify a suitable building in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, adjacent to the iconic Sir John Soane Museum. We moved here in February 2018. Some of us had been apprehensive about our move and no one really knew what to expect. However, within six months we were installed and settled in, and now we would never look back.

Our new location is just as full of history as the Temple – lawyers have been based here for centuries – but, with a fit-out to our specific requirements, the working environment is second to none for barristers and staff, professional and lay clients alike. For example, the conference room suite and the rooftop terrace overlooking Lincoln’s Inn Fields mean we can hold the majority of our events and seminars in-house, which reduces the costs of entertaining. The seven meeting rooms are state of the art, which not only allows us to provide a first class service to our clients, but also enables us to offset some of our property costs by hiring out the facilities.

The move has also instigated wellbeing benefits. As possibly the only set of chambers with a light well, we have a large kitchen which enables us to host breakfasts for staff and members every day and there are plans for yoga and Pilates classes in the airy space in the middle of this open plan area.

Have we lost the history and tradition? Absolutely not. We still have a name board as you enter chambers, albeit a more modern version, in keeping with a contemporary reception – and we plan to display the previous one from the Temple, keeping the history of 1 Garden Court alive. There’s no escaping the law books still dotted around the building and we are incorporating a new library. You will still find pigeon holes in the clerks’ room, and of course the barristers’ rooms will never lose their unique charm. As Janet Bazley QC, Joint Head of Chambers says: ‘We haven’t lost the characteristics of a set of chambers, our new modern premises have simply enhanced them.’

We were not the first set to make a bold move. While most chambers leaving the Inn have chosen locations close by, QEB Hollis Whiteman decamped to a completely new environment in Cannon Street in 2010. Extolling the advantages of their new base in ‘the heart of the City’, Adrian Darbishire QC, chair of the set’s management committee, comments: ‘We took the decision to leave the Temple and buy our own premises, so that we could determine ourselves what was needed to best serve our clients.’

Other sets have modernised within the Inn. Wilberforce Chambers, which has 70 members in multiple buildings across New Square, has followed a significant refurbishment programme in the last two years, upgrading IT and conference facilities and knocking through walls so that all clerking, marketing and admin personnel are in one room. Noting that ‘our presence in Lincoln’s Inn represents the merging of tradition with modern business ethics, a combination which we know from feedback works well for barristers, staff and clients too’, Practice Director Nicholas Luckman reports that the improved facilities have increased interaction between members of the set, which now holds weekly socials in the new space as well as frequent events for clients: ‘Our priority is to ensure that our accommodation encapsulates our brand and properly supports our organisational aims as a modern 21st century business.’

Similarly Hardwicke, a set acclaimed by legal commentators for its ‘internal bike racks and table tennis table’, has opted, under the direction of CEO, Amanda Illing to create a state-of-the-art business hub within the Inn. ‘We have made our name as an innovative, client-driven and forward-thinking chambers and as such are keenly aware that appearances matter: your premises are a reflection of your business model,’ says Business Development Director, Sally Wollaston. ‘You do not need to be in an ultra-modern building to be a modern business and to be seen as such. Lincoln’s Inn brings many advantages for barristers, staff and clients: a beautiful and traditional location near the courts and at the centre of the legal district.’

Paul Rowlands is Managing Director of BDS Architecture & Interior Design, a legal property specialist who has completed refurbishment and relocation projects for chambers. He notes that the real challenges arise not from structural difficulties and design differences but decision-making: he advises sets to appoint ‘a small property committee working within predefined parameters to drive the project at key decision-making milestones’. He points to current trends driven by regulation such as GDPR, which has seen many chambers reconfiguring to absorb significantly more secure file storage: perhaps not a trail-blazing development but one which can require considerable architectural ingenuity.

File storage is less of an issue for a criminal set such as Lincoln House in Manchester, which made the jump to a paperless practice when it moved to new premises in 2012. Senior Clerk David Wright comments: ‘The move to a paperless capability actually greatly assisted the adjustment to the new office, which was entirely hot desking: people saw the logic and so the loss of individual rooms was not the political issue that we might have anticipated.’ The new offices are strikingly minimalist although there are nods to the past – in this case a reception desk constructed partly from volumes of Halsbury’s Laws and arrangements of informal photographs of members clustered on sleek ultra-white walls. Wright adds that the design of the new premises also assisted: ‘It was dramatically different but it was a working environment to be proud of. Within a few weeks the loss of rooms, and being surrounded by briefs and books, had already become a thing of the past. Barristers were using the space and systems in ways that we had not anticipated leading to innovations in working practices which swiftly spread throughout the membership.’

And although the costs of a move or modernisation are obviously significant, there are often longer-term savings. Serjeants’ Inn, for example, substantially reduced overheads together with its footprint when it moved to purpose-designed premises in a Lutyens building on Fleet Street in 2013 and the largely open plan design has saved money since. Joint CEO Martin Dyke notes: ‘Although the set has expanded substantially, with 25 new tenants over the last four years, the flexibility of the space has meant that we have been able to re-configure to absorb them, rather than having to acquire expensive separate space.’

A recent report from the World Green Building Council found ‘overwhelming evidence which demonstrates that the design of an office impacts the health, wellbeing and productivity of its occupants’. So, even with the new emphasis on remote working and pop-up office spaces, it is clear that an organisation’s premises are key to its ethos and its success. As Paul Rowlands concludes: ‘With staff salary costs, the building is often the greatest expense for a set of chambers: So it pays in all sorts of ways to make sure it really works for you.’

Hannah Sparkes, 1GC|Family Law and member of the Legal Practice Management Association