As sound proof as a leaky sieve
May 5, 2015 2:16 PM   Subscribe

Legal firms are based around privacy, but both Suits and The Good Wife quite prominently feature offices with walls made of glass panels with substantial air gaps between them. In Suits it looks like it's about an inch. In TGW it's nearer a foot. Is there something I'm missing about the design or the acoustics, or are these walls pretty much useless?
posted by sodium lights the horizon to Science & Nature (12 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: BTW, I appreciate that they're TV shows, but it seems like a really obvious thing to get wrong... unless I'm missing something equally obvious...
posted by sodium lights the horizon at 2:17 PM on May 5, 2015 [1 favorite]

I'm not sure about how soundproof the specific walls are, but I can tell you I've worked in a lot of legal environments where I could eavesdrop on my neighbors' phone calls if I wanted to. The idea that legal firms are based around privacy, or designed around privacy, is a fallacy.
posted by craven_morhead at 2:36 PM on May 5, 2015 [14 favorites]

My experience working in law firms (real estate, criminal defense, and family law) has been that everything is more or less fair game if it's contained among attorneys and support staff. Overhearing phone conversations, popping in to a colleague's office to ask how they'd handle x or y, that kind of thing is all pretty normal. Privacy and confidentiality come in with regard to people outside the office.

Basically (in most situations), you can talk about a case with your coworker, but not with your racquetball partner.
posted by witchen at 2:40 PM on May 5, 2015 [8 favorites]

To follow on from witchen, in my experience working in a number of law firms, emails are regularly sent out warning the office when non-firm members are expected to be roaming the halls, i.e., rather than being limited to conference rooms, so that office members can take appropriate precautions to prevent a breach of the attorney-client privilege. However, again following on witchen, the law firm is the attorney so there's no problem with another member of the law firm hearing or seeing material that is subject to the privilege.

It's also surprisingly rare for clients to hang out in attorneys' private offices. Normally, a client meeting will take place in a conference room. And that's in firms that have wall walls, not glass walls. Maybe the tv/reality disconnect here is how much access (how far into the office they can penetrate) clients have on tv vs how much they have in real life.
posted by janey47 at 2:56 PM on May 5, 2015

What witchen says. I am not a lawyer but an accountant in a large professional services firm so I may be wrong but I would expect that, in addition to professional standards which cover only the lawyers, legal firms require all employees to sign a confidentiality agreement and then internal communication is pretty much fair game. And it's good practice to actually consult your internal peers on things because they may have relevant experience that allows you to serve your client better.

Clearly some things may need extra precautions but you achieve that by limiting number and level of people you involve, by giving strict instructions to the people you do involve and these people are normally professional and respect the additional measures you put in place.

I'd also expect client meeting rooms that will be somewhat away from the general office area, nearest reception, to stop outsiders from seeing or hearing things they shouldn't. In our building you can't get past reception unless somebody picks you up. Even then the client meeting rooms are on a separate floor to the offices and you need a badge to get into the office areas. And the client meeting rooms have indeed got proper walls, as opposed to open plan or glass walls you get elsewhere.
posted by koahiatamadl at 3:04 PM on May 5, 2015 [1 favorite]

As noted above, for the most part, a client retains the firm, not the attorney within the firm, so generally, you don't need to shield your conversations, research, drafts or work product from your co-workers (attorneys, paralegals, secretaries). It's good practice not to be too chatty about your cases in the public spaces of the firm's offices (you never know who's in the waiting room), but generally speaking, it does not matter what your co-workers overhear.

Most legal aid offices barely have cubicles and there's no real issue because, as also noted above, the spaces in the office where non-employees can go is very limited. In the big fancy own-the-building law firms, there are only one or two floors where non-employees are allowed and these are not floors with offices.
posted by crush-onastick at 3:21 PM on May 5, 2015

Glass-heavy sets like Suits, The Good Wife, and Boston Legal are designed so that every piece of glass can rotate to avoid reflections of lights, cameras, etc. The gaps you're seeing are caused by several panels being rotated.

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posted by JackBurden at 3:30 PM on May 5, 2015 [18 favorites]

If there is a gap for lighting purposes, then that's one answer.

In the case of hurricane windows, in the non TV world, some are double paned with argon? Or other sealed air/gas. The gap is either 5/8" or 3/8" I think. (I sold windows briefly but its been a while). These do cut down on noise significantly and is cited as a selling point.

A friend used to hang out at a glass office (crazy sensitive stuff went on, she was there on a consult basis) I can ask her for deets next time I see her.
posted by tilde at 3:51 PM on May 5, 2015

I've worked in two law firms. In the first, about half of the attorneys had offices and the rest had cubicles. Like, regular Office Space cubicles. Paralegals and other staff had open desks in one room. The office manager had his own office.

In the second law firm, every attorney has an office with big solid doors and thick walls, and so does the office manager and several "higher up" paralegals. Only the receptionist, secretaries and more secretarial paralegals have open desks in a more common area.

Every law firm has a conference room. That's where you take clients if you need privacy and want to impress them, typically not your office.
posted by quincunx at 4:23 PM on May 5, 2015

My wife's firm is moving to full open plan in the next few months, for everyone including the CEO. A terrible idea for other reasons, but not an issue for client privacy.
posted by wilful at 5:10 PM on May 5, 2015

Oh her current office has large (~250mm) air gaps to adjoining offices, and you can hear another partner's phone convo of you really want to.
posted by wilful at 5:13 PM on May 5, 2015

The law offices I've worked in are all in standard office buildings and the walls are not very insulating. I can even hear the guy in the suite next to us through the common wall in my office a good amount of the time. (He's a bit of a yeller.)

Keep in mind that most offices of that kind are built so that most of the walls are not load bearing, contain minimal wiring etc and so can be quickly reconfigured for new tenants without too much expense. The plugs and etc tend to be in the external walls or the walls adjoining the corridor, which don't move. The walls between the offices are glorified partitions. They seem like drywall and hollow cavities, although I've never been able to look down from up in the drop ceiling so I couldn't be sure.

Visual privacy can be a bit more of a thing -- offices with a really big sight glass or a glassed wall will often have blinds.

Some people will also work with their door closed by default, which is typically considered eccentric and a bit stiff, but acceptable.
posted by snuffleupagus at 5:46 PM on May 5, 2015

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