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Developing a design strategy for the office of a law firm poses unique challenges for the decision-making process and for establishing the overall goals of the project. The partnership structure of the law firm differentiates it from other business entities. This difference is clear when it comes to making design decisions for the law firm’s future offices. With a corporate organization, design by committee, though not always ideal, can work when it comes to defining corporate goals and culture. Shared vision is often a strategic initiative of the successful corporation. Law firms, on the other hand, have been slower to adopt this critical mind-set. The lack of a shared vision in the design of a law firm can cause problems because design decisions are usually made by a small committee. Problems usually do not come to the surface until well after the project is completed and everyone has moved into the new space. Unlike most business executives, partners feel they have a stake in the design of their offices. Since partners are direct owners, they have an ownership awareness of their space that many corporate users do not share. Partners feel they have the right to a voice in any proposed design solution, yet the realities of billable time prevent their participation. Not allowing all partners to contribute ideas during the design process not only causes disgruntlement, but also overlooks the very people whose vision for the firm should drive design decisions. As stakeholders, partners should play a critical role in the project, but are often deliberately excluded, partly because their inclusion interferes with the business of law. So even though partners should be a critical component of the project, they are often silent. Yet it is the partners who need to define the culture and the long-term needs of the firm, two critical elements in design planning. Therefore, building a consensus among the partnership is essential for the project to succeed. The very idea of obtaining consensus among partners as part of the design process strikes fear into the hearts of most designers, managing partners, and administrators. Relocation projects are difficult enough to manage without having to secure buy-in from every partner. LIMITED COLLABORATION What has become the norm in law firm design is for the design firm to work with a small group at the law firm (usually two partners, an associate, and the office manager or administrator). This group is called the design or space committee. While the design firm gathers detailed qualitative requirements through individual and group interviews, it usually falls to the design committee to speak for the firm regarding issues of image and culture. This limited collaboration often leads to projects that can be compromised by the committee’s desire to make choices that are safe. When this happens, potentially unique and beneficial design strategies are diluted or not considered at all. The result is often unhappy partners who feel that the new design does not reflect their goals and aspirations. Partners’ desire for a say in how the new office will be designed is often perceived by all parties concerned (designers and management) as impractical. The first perceived obstacle, of course, is that partners are already very busy with billable work and are frequently unavailable. The second problem is the reluctance of the design firm to be engaged in a process that may be difficult to orchestrate with so many potential participants. For designers, working with more than a committee to review design decisions takes them out of their comfort zone. Large groups tend to take longer to make decisions and can convolute the perceived neatness of the designer’s carefully conceived design. While it is impossible to please all of the partners all of the time, the most common criticism of completed office design projects by the occupants is that no one asked them for their input. No matter how attractive the resulting design is, if some partners are unhappy, months — in some cases, years — of hard work may be wasted. That is why it is important to consider disparate viewpoints and to make a complete assessment of firm culture. On a more intriguing level, decisions by committees that attempt to please everyone or avoid conflict by going with traditional design solutions may miss an opportunity to think strategically, like corporate clients do. Many of the same issues confronting law firms — competition, staff retention, and hiring — have been in the sights of corporations for years. Successful corporations have learned how to make the workplace more efficient without compromising their values. Law firms are just beginning to understand how to translate their strategic goals into a workplace design strategy. Excluding the partners from this process limits the discussion on finding new ways to better utilize the office and may prevent the firm from developing the design that represents the best value. New ways of working and utilizing office space are unfamiliar territory for most attorneys and law firms. OPEN DIALOGUE Not only is it important to orchestrate the design process to include the entire partnership, but also it is actually workable. A successful tool that we have developed in our work with law firms is a focus group we refer to as an IDEA Session (Interactive Dynamic Environmental Assessment). These sessions are custom-designed to take into consideration group dynamics and the size and structure of the firm. Separate sessions are held for partners, associates, and in many instances, administrative support staff. The focus of each session differs somewhat, with the more strategic issues reserved for the partner session. Ideas about culture, external and internal image, and future vision of the firm are discussed, as well as what to keep from the existing space, what should be tossed, and what needs to be created to match the partners’ strategic goals. The role of the IDEA sessions is to create a forum for open dialogue, especially among the partners, as to the overall vision of the firm: What is it today? What should it be tomorrow? Every partner has a chance to express his or her individual concerns. Most important, these sessions allow the design consultant to hear these responses first-hand, identify common themes and differences, and ultimately develop consensus. With this input, the design firm should be able to develop a design strategy that truly reflects the goals and aspirations that are intrinsic to each particular law firm, not preconceived “solutions.” Partners are able to contribute valuable insight and are made to feel part of the process, with only a minimal investment of their time. The forum is also invaluable in defining the firm’s long-range goals and bringing to the surface any potential conflicts. These differences can be worked out during the session, before the design firm moves ahead. Reaching consensus at this stage will avoid revisions later on, which can be quite expensive. The responsibility of the design firm is to then synthesize the partners’ goals and visions into a working design strategy. The result is an office design that truly emanates from the partners and gives each of them a sense of having made a valuable contribution to the new office. Arnold Craig Levin is a design principal in the Washington, D.C., office of Mancini•Duffy, a national interior architectural firm. He also directs the firm’s Center for Workplace Innovation, a separate consultancy that works with clients in aligning their workplace strategies with their overall business strategies. He may be contacted at (202) 463-2353.

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