Our Offices, Ourselves
Denver solo Karen McDowell decorates her office with symbols of nature, such as pieces of coral and dried starfish. She has a plant in a pot she purchased from a florist doing business in the building that once housed Abraham Lincoln’s law office in Springfield, Ill.
She has favorite antiques, soft plush pillows and velvet fabrics. It’s a place where she feels at home, says McDowell, and where she hopes her clients feel at ease, too.
That’s why she also has hung a Norman Rockwell print depicting a little girl being called into the school principal’s office. She says she knows clients sometimes feel like the little girl when they go to court. The print serves another purpose for McDowell, too. “I find that if potential clients don’t think it’s funny enough,” she says, “that’s an indication that I might not be the lawyer for them.”
Solos’ offices tell who they are and what they like. How lawyers outfit their spaces gives both deliberate and inadvertent clues to visitors about what they consider important, personally and professionally, says Samuel D. Gosling, a psychology professor at the University of Texas at Austin.
“Clues about one’s personality just seep through in the way we tend our spaces—you can’t stop it,” says Gosling, who studies people’s environments and what those environments say about their personalities.
“A poster of Gandhi says one thing; an office full of American flag and patriotic memorabilia says something else,” Gosling says.
Gosling identifies three categories of meaning from a workspace. First, there are identity claims: intentional means of expressing who lawyers are to clients and others. Posters or artwork can be telltale signs of the occupant’s values.
The second category is what Gosling terms behavioral residue: those persistent personality quirks of which lawyers may not even be aware, but which nevertheless give clues as to who they are.
For example, Gosling says, people who display personal photos facing toward guests want them to notice and be impressed. People whose personal photos face toward them are seeking touchstones. They want reminders of why they work hard and who awaits their return home.
Finally, Gosling has identified personality indicators he calls thought and feeling regulators. These are talismans such as inspirational sayings, a favorite old memento, or indications of hobbies or outside interests that help alter our mood.
Solo Doris Walters agrees that evaluating a potential client’s reaction to her surroundings is part of determining how well they’ll work together.
“The atmosphere where you meet a client is one of your tools. It’s very important that you both be comfortable there so you can achieve the best results for yourself and your client,” says Walters of Georgetown, Texas, near Austin.
Walters, who practices primarily elder law, decorates her office with items such as a photo of her great grandparents on their wedding day. Her conference table sports what she refers to as gunslinger chairs, the sort of sturdy, comfortable wooden chairs often seen in Western movies.
Walters says clients are almost always charmed and disarmed by her office decor. “It never fails. I can tell by their expression when they walk in. They say it feels just like being at home at their kitchen table, having a chat.”