Law: The future is liquid

It's goodbye to Jarndyce & Jarndyce and hello to minimalist chic for firms freed by the Law Society's new rules. H20 is leading the way.
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WALK INTO the rebranded, hi-tech, modern-art-displaying and maverick-lawyer-populated world of Henry Hepworth, and you wonder whether law is the new rock'n'roll. The redesign has been overseen by Alan Aboud, a man also involved with the Levi's advertising campaign. For modern sculpture or film financing advice, talking e-mails or discussions about trademark rights, visit the firm off the Gray's Inn Road that has controversially relabelled itself H2O.

Cynical questions may be asked as to whether it is wise to let style - no matter how sharp and snappy - seem to prevail over content. Especially when critics see the letterheads, court files and business cards, with their water motifs in honour of the firm's new title. All this in a profession where it is wacky to wear coloured socks.

To those who know the firm, however, it is obvious that the gesture of taking on the new image fits in with its reputation for calculated risk- taking and innovation. Henry Hepworth's was set up in 1997 to specialise in media and intellectual property law. Since then Jason McCue, head of the media litigation department, has been involved in the groundbreaking Sunday Times victory against Thomas "Slab" Murphy, a prominent Provisional IRA man who had successfully sued every other publication that had tried to break his cover. Michael Henry, head of intellectual property, is advising the Department of Education and Employment's new initiative, University for Industry, while Catrin Turner is working on a battle over jeans prices between Levi's and Tesco.

But why exactly did they plump for the name H2O?

It wasn't until 1997 that the Law Society relaxed the rule that a principal lawyer in the firm (past or present) should be named in its title. Names of towns, acronyms, descriptions of the firm's work and completely fictional titles were added to the swirl of criteria designed to inject life into the formula epitomised by Dickens's Jarndyce & Jarndyce.

McCue explains the logic behind the new name. "When most clients come to a solicitor for legal advice, they will inevitably be looking at areas beyond the case, such as politics, culture and PR. The whole point is being able to help them both with the legal issues, and with interrelated issues - therefore becoming a problem-solving organisation. That's why we're renaming ourselves as the Henry Hepworth Organisation, or H2O."

H2O's image will impact itself on clients the moment they walk in. The Georgian building that houses the main body of the firm extends into a Sixties annexe, which Liz Knowles - a former curator of modern art at the Tate - is in charge of turning into a gallery to host four shows each year, to be viewed by appointment only. Clients will be able to lose themselves in a hauntingly open "beachscape" by John Miller, or gaze at sculptures by Michael Lawrence.

The firm's enthusiasm for technology is also in evidence in the paperless office. White benches are arranged around a white room filled with lap- top computers, with e-mail to talk to lawyers around the world. A piece of tongue-in-cheek innovation is a glass cell with padding on its back wall, into which lawyers can retreat when they need privacy - either to think, or to smash their heads against the wall. As part of a joke that clients will either love or loathe, they have emphasised the paperlessness of the office by filling the panels in the glass cell with shredded case- files, providing a surprisingly attractive finish.

In the original Law Society debate on changing firms' names, and by implication their images, a council member expressed worries that the profession would look "foolish" if it relaxed the rules. However, while H2O's presentation may specialise in ripples on the surface, it is an indication of deeper currents running through the legal profession. Lawyers will either have to think carefully about their own redesign, or simply go out and buy that new pair of socks.