Signs of Design

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Sometimes the best career advice has less to do with a resumé and an interview, and more to do with office decor. Does the prospective new workplace look like a sweatshop, with dull gray cubicles and tacky art posters that look like rejects from a rummage sale?

Is it overly ostentatious, with pano­ramic views and high-end furniture that takes one’s breath away and suggests the partners spend more on artwork than on associates?

Or is the office bright, innovative and arranged to foster teamwork and creativity? Is it the kind of place you can’t wait to get to in the morning?

“The space is a function of thinking about how you do what you do,” says James L. Palenchar, a founding partner of Chicago-based Bartlit Beck Herman Palenchar & Scott. “To me, that’s more important than the expression of a personality.”

The 50-attorney law firm has a basketball hoop centrally located in the “forum” area of its Chicago headquarters, and a towering climbing wall is a focal point of its Denver law offices.

These features aren’t simply there to make a law office fashion statement, though, Palenchar says. Instead, they are part of a coordinated office design that is intended to promote teamwork among the firm’s attorneys and support staff.

“The open space doesn’t exist to be admired,” Palenchar says. “The open space is very, very conducive to bouncing ideas off each other and everyone being involved. … We wanted to do that. We don’t think the best results come from a bunch of people isolated in cubicles or offices just kind of doing their thing.”

Individual lawyers’ offices at his firm range from a spartan work area to personalized space that showcases the attorney’s art collection or interest in golf, Palenchar says. But, overall, “there are not a lot of symbols of personal power and prestige,” and office space for partners and associates is much the same, he continues. “I think that reflects our feeling that people really don’t care about that stuff.”

Evidence Of Efficiency

There are other things to look at in a law office beyond the decor, says Nancy N. Quan, an in-house intellectual property lawyer in Culver City, Calif.

When she goes to visit law firms for her company, she wants to see computers and software that appear sophisticated enough to get legal work done efficiently.

Disor­ganization and clutter suggest potential problems keeping track of documents and files, she says. Potential employees should take a look at both, too.

Of course, the decor also signals the kinds of clients that the firm or company prefers. So applicants should take note to see whether they match up.

Portland, Ore., patent lawyer Walter W. Karnstein says his firm’s high-tech clients tend to dress rather casually. “I think many of them don’t want to walk into an office space that is very formal,” says Karnstein, who is secretary of the ABA’s Law Practice Management Section.

While an obviously expensive office can help make a lawyer look successful, it can also make clients worry about hefty legal fees, says Quan, immediate-past chair of the Solo and Small Firm Practitioners Committee of the ABA Tort Trial and Insurance Practice Section. It also could signal that the firm likes to spend its discretionary money on Picassos rather than on paychecks.

“Nowadays, people are a lot more price-conscious,” Quan says. When visiting “really nice offices with windows overlooking the city,” she thinks, clients are “going to be paying a lot!”

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