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Despite Tough Times, Expansive Lobbies Thrive

Oct. 27, 2015, 12:31 PM

For a reminder of how fast design trends can change, look no further than the July 1990 edition of theABA Journal. Several pages are given over to honoring the winners of the journal’s then-annual law office design competition.

The winning offices in 1990 were dotted around the country, and they show a few regional variations, like a desert-inspired color palette for a small firm in Texas. But some features appear again and again in the photos: lots of wood, mostly dark. Standard-height ceilings with fluorescent or recessed lights. Rich leather furniture; round columns; shelves upon shelves of books. This is the style that many of us still associate with law firms. (Think of the TV showThe Good Wifeand movies likeMichael Clayton.)

Twenty-five years later, almost everything has changed. Instead of a dark warren of mahogany tables and wall sconces, lawyers want an open suite of rooms washed in daylight. But one thing has survived: the expansive lobby or reception area.

In an era when law firms are cutting costs on all fronts — by reducing staffing ratios, de-equitizing partners, using alternative fee arrangements and reduced rates — how and why have law firms held onto the expansive lobby in some of the most expensive real estate zones in the country?

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To the extent there’s an easy answer, it’s that law firms still care about prestige: Nowhere does this come into clearer focus than in the reception area, the most public space in a law office, which announces the firm’s identity and creates all-important first impressions.

But the signifiers of prestige have changed: A clean, bright, modern space is more likely to impress clients these days than a Persian rug or antique table. And if design trends mirror broader marketing goals, then it’s clear that efficiency and sustainability have supplanted luxury and exclusivity.

“The focus is, ‘We’re a smart firm. We’re innovative,’” says Todd DeGarmo, the CEO of Studios, a global architecture firm that has worked with numerous Big Law clients. “That’s the impression they want the reception area to have.”

Sally King, the chief operating officer of Akin Gump, says the reception areas in the firm’s offices are now “much more client-centered space[s],” with “amenities such as touch points for people to power up their computers, a coffee station … and comfortable seating areas where they can talk with relative privacy.” Although clients generally don’t linger in the reception area before proceeding to a conference room, it’s a place where they can check email before the meeting, stash their coat and suitcase, or have a cup of coffee.

[caption id="attachment_5268" align="alignnone” width="629"][Image “Nixon Peabody DC office” (src=]Photo by Eric Laignel[/caption]

The new law-office lobby has emerged from major shifts in the practice of law over the past two decades. Office square footage has shrunk overall as the ratio of secretaries to attorneys has decreased dramatically; instead of one secretary per attorney, the industry average is now one secretary per four attorneys, King notes. That means far less space needs to be devoted to secretarial cubicles. Libraries can be much smaller, too, now that legal journals are online.

The grand corner offices that were once an expected perk of making partner are also starting to disappear. Client meetings have moved from private offices into conference rooms with more space and better technology.

This trend is still continuing: At Paul Hastings in New York, first- and second-year associates will occupy cubicles when the firm moves offices next year. The average square footage per attorney used to hover between 800 and 1,000; now it averages about 600 .

Thanks to the 2008 financial crash, and the downsizing and belt-tightening that followed it, opulence is something to be avoided, even if a firm could afford it. “We honestly believe that law firms have come to the point where clients don’t appreciate offices that are heavy on opulence,” says Jeff Lesk, the managing parker of Nixon Peabody in Washington. “They’re paying the bills.”

Refraining from luxury doesn’t mean that contemporary lobbies aren’t still very nicely appointed, though. Firms will spend more money per square foot on the public spaces of the office than on the practice areas. The floors are often high-quality stone or wood; furnishings may include showroom pieces.

But the luxury is understated. If the office has a great view, that’s the focal point. Visitors stepping into Akin Gump’s New York office, take in a spectacular panorama of Manhattan. When the firm hosts an event, the reception area and conference center combine into one fluid entertaining space.

If there isn’t a great view, architects will still try to bring in abundant natural light and pull it as deep into the office as they can, often by using glass interior walls. Cool colors enhance the brightness: White and gray predominate, and wood finishes tend to be blond rather than dark.

[caption id="attachment_5294" align="alignnone” width="600"][Image “Photo by Eric Laignel” (src=]Photo by Eric Laignel[/caption]

Arent Fox’s D.C. office , which was designed by Studios and opened in 2013, has a striking ultra-modern design. From the marble lobby of the building, clients pass through a white-and-steel entry area, then head up glass stairs to the main reception area, which shares the same icy colors. The office also features a blob-like silver pantry enclosure in the cafe; lipstick-red accent walls (the color of the Arent Fox logo); and hallways that kink and curve unexpectedly.

While these features are still edgy rather than typical in a law office, they speak to a level of design literacy in our culture that didn’t exist 20 years ago. “We live in a world where people are more visual. They’re used to what an Apple store looks like,” DeGarmo observes.

Likewise, there’s a general expectation that new offices will be highly sustainable. A LEED Gold rating, something to aspire to just a few years ago, is now almost the baseline in Class A buildings. Technological advances like LED lighting have helped, although lawyers working long hours at their computers still consume a fair bit of energy.

[caption id="attachment_5296" align="alignnone” width="640"][Image “Photo by Eric Laignel” (src=]Photo by Eric Laignel[/caption]

Contrary to the overall contraction in square footage, many law firms are choosing not to shrink their reception areas (Arent Fox is an exception).

“We’re not so much shrinking them,” DeGarmo says. “Maybe they’re even growing.” King agrees: “The size of the reception area if anything has likely grown.” That’s because the reception area is increasingly a multipurpose space, and part of a larger suite of public rooms that includes the conference center and sometimes the cafe or dining area.

In Nixon Peabody’s Washington office,designed by Perkins + Will , a three-story “living wall” of plants that lines the internal staircase is visible when you walk in. “It doesn’t take very long at all before the concept of sustainability jumps out at you,” Lesk says.

Nixon Peabody held a party for clients when the D.C. office opened, and it encourages nonprofits to use its 140-seat conference center and other public spaces for their own events. The reception desk was even designed to do double duty as a bar. “What we’re seeing more of is … the ability [for a space] to morph three or four times in the course of the day and sometimes to open up to the broader community,” says Anne Cunningham, an interior designer with NBBJ.

The fact that a handful of design firms has effectively cornered the Big Law market means that offices around the country are looking more similar. Not all of them, however — some law firms that serve the tech sector work in spaces that are less formal and more creative. Although that can only go so far.

“While of course we wanted to appeal to a younger generation …” said Lesk, “we didn’t think that copying a tech company was the way to go. We’re not a foosball kind of place.”