Features

Changing Spaces


If the firm wanted to impress with design that is confident, outward-looking and expansive, Jenner & Block succeeded. Yet for all its cutting-edge use of natural light, stone and wood, the floors where attorneys work adhere to traditions that the corporate world abandoned long ago.

At Jenner, as at most big law firms, private offices are the rule. A strict hierarchy prevails: secretaries in open pods, paralegals in cubicles, associates in offices by windows, partners in bigger offices, and senior partners in corner locations with the very best views.

“The traditional law firm layout hasn’t really changed,” says Jenner partner Donald I. Resnick, who chairs the firm’s real estate practice. “It’s become more efficient.”

Yet change is coming, slowly. Pushed by clients to cut costs, some law firms are experimenting with layouts that reflect new organizational structures and new ways of working:

• At Seyfarth Shaw’s new Atlanta office at 1075 Peachtree St. NE, no lawyer’s office is bigger than anyone else’s. Associates and partners alike work in universal 10-by-16-foot spaces. “We are very egalitarian, very entrepreneurial,” says Atlanta managing partner Steven Kennedy.

• At Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe’s new offices in the CBS headquarters building known as Blackrock, 51 W. 52nd St. in New York City, some associates’ offices were moved to the interior into space that traditionally houses files and support professionals. Glass was used throughout to bring light and views into every space. “With offices on both sides [of hallways], it creates a much more vibrant atmosphere,” says Peter A. Bicks, a litigation partner in charge of the New York office. “Partners are sitting right by associates with complete, open lines of sight. One of the goals is to encourage a more collaborative atmosphere.”

• When Morgan, Lewis & Bockius moved its Washington, D.C., office to 1111 Pennsylvania Ave. NW in 2001, the firm used prime space on a top floor—with dramatic views looking toward the White House—not for partners’ offices but for a dining center with an outdoor terrace available to everyone. “This was not uncontroversial,” says Stephen Paul Mahinka, chair of the firm’s interdisciplinary life sciences practice, who oversaw office design and construction. “It contributes to the collegiality of the firm.”

AGAINST THE TIDE

Still, despite the trend toward more open, collaborative and flexible spaces, law firms have been slow to adopt practices common among their corporate clients and other professional services firms: one-size or universal offices, open floor plans, and “hoteling” arrangements where professionals reserve offices when they need them.

Architect Todd DeGarmo, chief executive officer of the international firm Studios Architecture, initially puzzled over why lawyers resisted these trends. “In law firms, a change in title means a change in office,” he says. “Corporate America spent years engineering those costs out of their system. There’s a lot more emphasis on how to make people effective than how to reward them with space.”

He realized that lawyers make money by billing hours rather than by striving for efficiency. To maximize billable time, they work heads-down and sequestered. A typical associate’s office is 125 to 150 square feet, a common size in corporate America, DeGarmo says. A partner’s office is more likely to be 200 to 250 square feet, “which almost doesn’t exist anywhere else anymore.”

Julia Simet, who heads the professional services practice at the global firm Gensler, says law firms are beginning to recognize that as many as 25 percent of their attorneys are working away from the office at a given time. “But they’re not prepared to give up offices for every attorney,” she says. “Everybody’s got to have a suite. A lot of it is tradition. It’s generational.”

“If you’re a partner in a large law firm, you didn’t get there by not spending a lot of time in your office,” says Jenner’s Resnick. “There is an additional cost, but people work long hours. Real estate as a percentage of total costs is relatively small. Our bigger cost is our people—then technology.”

One factor creating stronger incentives to change is alternative billing, where firms get rewarded for efficiency. “People will collaborate more; they’ll need to share information,” DeGarmo says. “You’ll go to the person with the best expertise rather than having an associate sit and research an area of the law.”

Meanwhile, law firms are pouring money into showcase reception and conference areas while keeping the floors where attorneys work off-limits to visitors. While pursuing more environmentally friendly interiors, they’re making greater use of natural light. Glass is everywhere, bringing new meaning to the notion of a “private” office.

THE NEXT GENERATION

When Morgan Lewis moved into its renovated building on Pennsylvania Avenue, frosted-glass doors on attorneys’ offices were “quite controversial,” partner Mahinka says. These days in newer high-rise buildings, walls as well as doors are see-through.

“You’ve heard the saying ‘There isn’t a bad seat in the house,’ ” says Orrick chief of staff Reid Horovitz in New York. “Here, every seat you have is getting views. The outside walls are floor-to-ceiling glass, and all the offices inside are transparent except for very moderate, partial frosting where you don’t want to have people sitting so they’re staring face to face.”

When Seyfarth Shaw’s Chicago office moved to 131 S. Dearborn St. three years ago, all-glass fronts on lawyers’ offices were more controversial than adopting a universal size, says Chicago managing partner David Rowland. The firm wanted to bring natural light into the interior offices as well as to make a statement: “Teamwork is a core element of our firm,” he says. “You want more openness, both physically and culturally.”

Initially, “each lawyer would look up whenever someone walked by,” says Seyfarth administrator and partner Carl Russo. “Now you could walk by and no one notices.”

The firm prepared attorneys for the change by erecting mock-ups of the suites in the new space and bringing people in to try them out. “At times we were making difficult decisions about how opaque or not the glass would be. We thought, ‘Who are you building this for?’ ” Rowland says. “It’s for the next generation. Each time we got to those decision points, that’s what influenced me.”

Some more senior partners wanted to keep their traditional furniture rather than accepting new contemporary furnishings, and they did. At least one partner moved his couch with him into an interior office that can accommodate a sofa. “He takes naps in his office; he turns the lights out at night. Everybody can see him,” Russo says. (For lawyers who prefer to nap without being seen, there are hideaways: informal meeting rooms with a couch and chairs.)

Seyfarth’s open design reinforces practices such as SeyfarthLean, modeled after the Six Sigma business management program. The goal is to emphasize reducing costs rather than billing hours. A universal layout helps, says partner Lynn Holliday, who leads the Atlanta office’s real estate practice group.

“The traditional office is very isolating. There are lots of doors and all these status symbols,” Holliday says. “We wanted to get away from that.”

Holliday’s group drew straws to decide the order in which people would choose offices. For his part, managing partner Kennedy took an office near the heart of the administrative team rather than on a prime corner.

But even at Seyfarth, egalitarianism can be a hard sell. In New York “there was a problem with recruitment, having laterals come over” to take offices no bigger than those of associates, Russo says, so universal offices were ruled out. “The furniture is basically the same, but there are two sets due to different office sizes.”

In Chicago, Rowland knew the build-out was a success when one of its harshest critics showed a client the firm’s new conference center. “The client says this was the most beautiful space they’d ever been to in a lawyer’s office. [The critic] told me this was a brilliant idea. Because the client liked it, he liked it.”

Architects predict that smaller, more open universal offices will predominate eventually—even in the legal world.

“Most businesses envision the future and try to see how fast they can get there,” DeGarmo says. “My experience has been that law firms talk about something for 10 years before they do it. Law is precedent-based. Most changes are talked about for a very long time.”

And when they finally get implemented? “It’s no big deal,” he says.

Seyfarth’s Chicago managing partner David Rowland talks about the firm’s new look and layout in this audio slideshow:

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