What We Learned in DC about the Evolution of Law Office Design

Photos and key takeaways from our September 20 Work Design TALK at Nixon Peabody.

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Nixon Peabody’s Jeff Lesk (far left) gives attendees a tour of the office before the TALK. Photo by Erin Kelleher.

Law firms — ones in DC, especially — are so steeped in tradition that they’ve always seemed to us the last frontier of any radical changes in workplace design. But the way we work is changing and, slowly but surely, we’re starting to these organizations adopt new ideas. We hosted our most recent talk at Nixon Peabody’s DC office one of the firms that has, essentially, removed their glasses, let down their hair, and designed a space that more fully aligns with their values and goals.

We stacked the panel with experts who we knew could talk about the evolution of law office design generally, but also about the moves Nixon Peabody has made, specifically. Panelists included Catherine Heath, managing principal at HYL Architecture and a law firm design expert; Jeff Lesk, managing partner of Nixon Peabody’s DC office; Pat Marr, vice chairman at Newmark Grubb Knight Frank (and Nixon Peabody’s broker); and Ken Wilson, principal and design director at Perkins+Will and the lead designer on the project. Bob Fox, our founder, moderated.

Here are five key takeaways that have stuck with us since the event.

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At top, the reception area, with the panel discussion taking place in the conference room to the far right. Below, the panelists, from left to right: Jeff Lesk, Ken Wilson, Catherine Heath, Pat Marr, and moderator, Bob Fox. Photos by Erin Kelleher.

  1. Most law firms are carrying way too much space

The early drivers of the Nixon Peabody project came from the firm’s CEO, challenging Lesk and his team to find a way to get more functionality out of a smaller space.

“While we are thriving economically, there’s been a sea change in economics,” said Lesk. “Law firms are carrying too much space.”

Since moving in to the new office, the firm is spending one-third less on real estate, one-third less on lighting the office, and one-third less on natural resources. And in addition to addressing cost and environmental factors, they’ve also strived to “create a great workplace” for their people.

When you think of law firms, said Lesk, you think of “large offices, and competitive real estate within the office.” In addition to that sort of bloat that winds up costing firms a lot of money, you wind up with a “workplace that’s disjointed” by following that old approach.

Instead, Lesk said they sought to create a space inspired by “town halls, piazzas, and gathering spaces.”

“We wanted all 160 of our people to actually see each other,” he said. “We wanted to break down the hierarchy.”

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Above, Jim Nuttle sets to work on another incredible graphic recording of the TALK (see bottom of the page for final result!). Below, Bob Fox poses a question to the panelists. Photos by Erin Kelleher.

  1. For lawyers, evidence-based design really matters

This office is going to be Nixon Peabody’s DC home for the next 15 years, so Lesk saw a disconnect in designing for the future based on benchmarking that’s already five years old. But that presents a particular challenge for a law firm, who, in order to make a change, needs to get buy in from the partnership.

“Benchmarking is precedent,” said Lesk. “And these are lawyers.”

Some of the ideas implemented at Nixon Peabody — standard, smaller offices for all attorneys and support staff; corner offices-turned-meeting rooms; dedicating square footage they’ve saved by slashing office size to large, bright community spaces — “they’re maybe not earth shattering for all corporate offices, but for a law firm, they’re huge changes,” said Wilson. “These are ideas that have been really slow coming for law firms. It required big effort.”

“For lawyers, evidence-based design matters,” said Heath. “There are a lot of big changes happening right now; there’s fear around doing something different.”

But with increasing evidence around the positive effects of certain changes, more attorneys are willing to take the plunge.

The cafe at Nixon Peabody. Photo by Erin Kelleher.

The cafe at Nixon Peabody. Photo by Erin Kelleher.

  1. The new office is part of a larger brand and culture shift for Nixon Peabody

During the design process, Nixon Peabody was also in the middle of a corporate re-branding initiative, so the design team took it upon themselves to “somehow create the physical manifestation of this forward-thinking creativity,” said Wilson.

Lesk said that they wanted to “promote and embrace” the initiative, to “sense ahead” and anticipate how things would change down the road, and to “drop some of the traditional things you typically see in a law firm in DC.”

The designers shot for an aesthetic that was intentional, tailored, clean and crisp — but with a sense of craft. And no white marble.

“There’s a Saarinen table upstairs, in white marble,” said Wilson, smiling. “That’s our one homage.”

Still, Lesk said, the change isn’t about the “beauty of the workspace. We’re running a business, and it’s still about the bottom line.”

The fun part? Nixon Peabody recognizes that “good design is good for business,” said Heath.

An open stair connects the floors of the office. Photo by Erin Kelleher.

An open stair connects the floors of the office. Photo by Erin Kelleher.

  1. Change Management 101: Do you want a big office or a big house?

Much of the change management process came down to asking attorneys what they really need when it comes to office space.

“It’s money that either goes in your landlord’s pocket, or in your pocket,” said Marr.

Do you want a big office, or a budget to travel?,” added Lesk, giving examples of questions posed to attorneys. “A big office, or a big house?” Apparently no one had too much trouble with that one.

“The more change that’s happening in attorney’s private offices, the more emphasis we can put on alternate spaces [within the office] to go and work,” said Heath.

Part of the brilliance of Nixon Peabody’s design, said Lesk, is that now they’re “exposed as an institution: clients see all staff and can have coffee in the café with attorneys.” And it’s not just the look and feel that causes clients to react positively — it’s the economics, too.

Of course, he added, “as wonderful as this place is, it’s not for everyone. It didn’t work because we were designing the workplace of the future, it works because we were designing [a space for us].”

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Photo by Erin Kelleher.

  1. Needs for privacy and confidentiality are often overstated

Gasp!

During the Q&A, attendee Adam Stoltz asked probably what everybody else was thinking about this beautiful, open space with private offices, yes, but private offices  behind transparent glass walls.

“Privacy, confidentiality, security: are they overstated?,” asked Stoltz. “Or do you just have a different perspective?”

“It’s both,” said Lesk. “Privacy and confidentiality can be an excuse,” and the other panelists nodded along, each uttering something about how there are plenty of attorneys who conduct business in restaurants, in airports, and on airplanes.

In many cases, said Lesk, it’s perfectly fine for attorneys to meet with clients in the café or in other communal spaces within the office. The firm has digitized a ton of files — 34 years worth, in Lesk’s case, which used to take up an entire case room. When there is a real need for privacy, “there are easy and elegant solutions,” he said.

“Every attorney workspace is locked behind closed doors. Every floor does have some places that can be hermetically sealed, for depositions, HR, confidential matters,” he said. “I think privacy is overstated, but you need to create users manual” so people know the resources are there when they need them.

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The graphic recording from the conversation, courtesy of Jim Nuttle.

A special thank you to our event sponsors AgilQuest, HNI One, Bialek Environments, Herman Miller Collection, FOX Architects, GHT Limited, and Chris Crane Contract | WCI and reSAWN TIMBER Co.

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