I realised when I took up my role as the new Practice Operations Director of Hardwicke (now Gatehouse) Chambers during the lockdown in 2020 that one of the main responsibilities for which I was being recruited was to see through the move of chambers operations from the building it had occupied for the last 30 years in Lincoln’s Inn at the expiry of its lease, to a newly refurbished building in Gray’s Inn.

However, what I hadn’t quite appreciated was that this extensive premises project had been planned for many years before my arrival. It soon became clear that it had occupied an intensive period of management and planning time by the senior team before I came on board.

I could see why. The better you plan, the easier the move. For at least five years before the move, CEO Amanda Illing, Finance Director Gavin Sturge, and the Chambers Management Committee had led Chambers’ finances and managed annual budgets to lessen the financial impact and to give Chambers more options over future expenditure for a super building fit-out (pictured, right).

As it happens, this strategy also had the unintended consequence of mitigating the impact of the effects of the pandemic in the early part of 2020.

Two years before the planned move, we undertook a space planning exercise with a consultant. This included pre-COVID heat maps of how we were using barrister rooms, staff space and client space. During lockdown we ran a rooms questionnaire. Although a few people changed their preferences on room requirements, we were surprised that most barristers still wanted rooms and to share office space, and expressed a desire to create more areas for social networking and collaboration.

My 10 top tips for a pain-free move and fit-out

Several months on from the move, I can now just about look at this project from the other end of the kaleidoscope. Here are my 10 top tips:

  1. The process of running the fit-out and move project – an enormous task – was made easier by a series of barrister/staff working groups. This ensured that we had lots of barrister buy-in and staff involvement. We had a core property subcommittee to make key decisions and to keep the project on track. Other subcommittees included a focus on rooms and furniture, and another on design and sustainability.
  2. Don’t scrimp on anything – you will only regret it later – especially furniture that will last for many years if you purchase well. We engaged the services of a furniture consultant who worked alongside the design team. This enabled us to enjoy significant cost savings and discounts on bulk purchasing (eg automatic sit/stand desks for all).
  3. Think the unthinkable and have an open mind. For example, we made a brave decision to dispense with barrister pigeonholes in the new building. We don’t yet have buyers’ remorse over that decision, but it meant we had to think through our operations going forward.
  4. 4. Take advantage of the move to undertake a massive decluttering exercise well ahead of time. We ran a scheme where people could offer up to others items that were hidden under desks or in the basement, including desks, shelves, pictures, clothes… and so on. The list was issued every week and people could bid for them and donate a small sum to charity. This ended up being a fun way of decluttering while doing our own form of upcycling and charitable offsetting!
  5. Appointing a good removal firm is crucial, and one that can cope with the flexibility you will need. We used one that had worked with other chambers.
  6. Once you have physically moved your crates and set up operations in your new shiny building, you will need more time than you think to clear up the building you have left behind. We gave ourselves a month for the clear-up operation of the old building.
  7. Talk to other people. There are some things on which barristers’ chambers are in competition and understandably prefer not to share information. However, there are many things that a network of support professionals across chambers are happy to share. We were fortunate to gain invaluable tips, advice and recommendations from people in other chambers that had undertaken significant building projects. We would be happy to share and pass our experience on to others.
  8. Consider hiring a strategic accountant with no ‘skin in the game’ to give you the best advice on how to structure your finances surrounding a move/refurbishment, especially if it involves an increase in percentage contribution from members, or any other creative financing plan.
  9. Also well worth the investment is a professional project manager which makes managing things so much easier. Although a project of this nature does take over, we are generally not experienced and skilled at this sort of activity. A project manager will guide you through the process, from original concept, space planning, tendering, design and build, and then all the way through to completion and the inevitable snagging.
  10. And finally, when it comes to the move itself, you’ll need a good pair of trainers for all the walking you will do, a sturdy back support for the boxes and crates you will move, and a bum bag for phones, pen, scissors, cable ties and masterplan spreadsheets on the move.

Good luck!