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The dust, the noise, the paint smells. Does anyone in the world love a renovation project? Paul Kruse doesn’t think so. “No one would ever want to do a renovation in place if they could do it any other way,” says the chief operating officer at Steptoe & Johnson. Kruse speaks from experience — Steptoe recently finished a multiphase overhaul of its offices at 1330 Connecticut Ave. N.W. But if the rabbit warren of gloomy cubicles and worn carpet isn’t working for the firm, something has to be done. And moving isn’t always the best option. Many D.C.-area firms take a look at the tight commercial real estate market and opt to stay put. Before they know it, managers are interviewing architects and eyeing those custom-finish partner desks with a jaded eye. At some point someone says that as long as everybody is going to be inconvenienced, maybe the firm should fix a few more things. Carolyn Falb, administrator at Cohen, Milstein, Hausfeld & Toll, knows the story well. She says that since she launched her law firm career, in 1980, she’s been responsible for a good half-dozen renovation projects. In fact, when Falb interviews with a new firm, she always asks firm leaders if they’re planning a renovation. “They always say no,” but they always end up renovating, she says with a sigh. THE BOTTOM LINE One obvious reason to renovate in place is cost. Steven Martin, an architect with the D.C. office of the architecture and design planning firm Gensler, says renovating in place is usually “significantly less” expensive than a relocation. In general, he says, a renovation project in Washington, D.C., runs about $60 a square foot in construction costs. Moving to a new location and starting from scratch costs closer to $100 a square foot. Law firms are also recognizing that they don’t actually need more space; they need to make better use of the space they already have. In terms of efficiency, law offices used to be measured as footage per attorney. Some offices reached as much as 1,000 square feet per attorney. With a substantial renovation, that can drop to as little as 700 square feet per attorney, says Martin. And that leaves more room for whatever the firm needs more room for. As Martin notes, “If you can grow and save on space, you can save money.” For many firms it’s also a question of location. Miller & Chevalier, for instance, has a prime spot at 655 15th St. N.W., right next to the Treasury building. For a firm with a huge tax practice, that’s the catbird’s seat. No matter why firms opt to renovate in place, what turns up in today’s renovation projects reveals as much about the changing practice of law as it does about the volatile world of real estate. WHAT’S THE MESSAGE? Possibly one of the most significant changes is an increased emphasis on a firm’s public image. Gensler has a branding and marketing department called Studio 585, which works with firms to coordinate their message — to clients, potential clients, current employees, and future hires — with their physical appearance. “We spend a lot of time talking to them about the image they want to project,” says Martin. In thinking about its renovation, Miller & Chevalier determined that the firm wanted an image that was “not too cold and not too glitzy,” says Executive Director Pam Bernstein. “You want the clients to be comfortable in your space.” Conference rooms are key to a firm’s image. Many firms are looking to put conference rooms in more public areas, closer to the reception area, so that clients aren’t forced to traipse past rows of file cabinets, glimpsing papers stacked high on associates’ desks and maybe overhearing private conversations. Firms are also turning the traditional room with a big table, a lot of chairs, and a sideboard into a souped-up business center, with features like a plasma-screen TV and wireless Internet access. Another shift involves the more efficient use of space and resources. Take the shrinking office. Traditionally, the size of a partner’s office was roughly 225 square feet, or 15 feet by 15 feet, says Martin. Associates usually had offices of about 150 square feet, or 10 by 15. Today, Martin says, some firms in other cities are opting for the shockingly egalitarian option of 180 square feet for everyone. So far, that trend hasn’t caught on in Washington in a big way, partly because the most cost-effective renovations leave the footprint of the partners’ offices ringing the perimeter in place. A further efficiency arises from the changing ratio of secretary-to-attorney. Gone are the days when one secretary worked for one partner. Today, Martin says, that ratio is more like one secretary working for three lawyers. That means that the secretarial stations, once an inside rim of desks matched up with the partners’ offices, can be placed more strategically. And new law office furniture tends to be modular, so that it can be moved easily as work assignments shift. Also in the space category, libraries are shrinking as the need for books and paper diminishes, and some are being moved to less-expensive spaces or even off-site, says Martin. The space devoted to reception areas is shrinking, too. Traditionally, large firms staffed a reception desk on each floor. Today many firms are routing all visitors through one main reception area. Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman, for example, with six floors at 2300 N St. N.W., now has just one reception area, on the building’s first floor. Eliminating separate reception areas on other floors, in a recent renovation, freed up extra space for conference rooms, says Steven Moore, the firm’s chief operating officer. Besides polishing the image and reconfiguring space, law firms are adding another dimension to the renovation process, the human touch. One trend is the creation of what designers are calling “town centers.” In place of the old kitchenettes, these centers combine traditional lounge areas with some office equipment, such as scanning or copying machines, notes Martin. Dickstein Shapiro is even adding a Starbucks kiosk and a gas fireplace. The goal is to create a place where people will feel comfortable chatting with their colleagues for a few moments. These and similar amenities — such as improved food areas, workout centers (Clifford Chance actually has a sky-lit indoor pool in London), game rooms, and spaces for quiet prayer or meditation — serve a dual purpose: They keep hard-working lawyers happy, but they also make it possible for them to put in longer hours. Why leave if you can eat, exercise, catch up on the news, and chill out for a few minutes right on-site? Martin says the bells and whistles serve to attract younger lawyers “who are rounding out life’s experiences in the office.” Of course, having a 21st-century conference room and a workout center gives a firm some serious bragging rights. But getting there can be a bit of a nightmare. Renovations have the potential to set off class-A diva behavior. Who wants to be the one to tell the firm’s crustiest partner that he has to move his desk? Miller & Chevalier offers a good example of a firm that managed to stay put during a major renovation project with a minimum of disruption, temper tantrums, and angst. But before the project even began, Bernstein, the executive director, put in an enormous amount of planning. Four years ago the firm’s lease was coming to an end. With a tight D.C. real estate market, Bernstein knew that the firm needed to start looking around early. First, the firm interviewed 10 to 12 commercial brokers. After culling that list down to three, the firm chose Trammell Crow. Next, Bernstein interviewed five design teams and chose SKB Architecture & Design. The firm had not yet decided whether it was going to move to a new space or renovate. “We were open to all possibilities at that point,” she says. As in any tight market, prime locations were being snapped up quickly. Eventually, the firm found three available sites to consider, along with the option to stay put. At this point, Bernstein did something unusual: She asked for input from everyone, not just the attorneys. Using a combination of surveys and focus groups, she gathered opinions from legal assistants, accounting personnel, and housekeeping staff. She wanted to know what people thought about Metro access, amenities in the neighborhood, and proximity to the White House in an age of increased terrorism. She asked them what neighborhoods they’d be most comfortable commuting to. She asked members of practice groups how they felt about being split up on different floors. Adding up the views of the staff, the realities of the real estate market, and the benefits of Miller & Chevalier’s current location, the firm opted to stay and renovate. “There was a lot of sentimental feeling about this space,” Bernstein says. The next step was to go back to the staff and ask more questions. For instance, before moving the library to another floor, Bernstein spent a lot of time talking to the librarians about what worked for them. “I think that made a huge difference,” she says. Over the course of the year-and-a-half project, Bernstein figures that she e-mailed everyone in the firm at least once every two or three weeks. Of course, there was some griping, she admits, with some partners questioning why they needed to do the renovation in the first place. But Bernstein tried to keep the tone of her updates humorous. And, she laughs, she was careful to keep copies of all survey forms, as evidence that everyone did get a chance to weigh in. Miller & Chevalier also followed a suggestion offered up by someone at the firm that the construction company make it possible for people to see the changes as they were happening. Rand Construction itself came up with the idea of putting up a piece of clear acrylic so people could peer at the work being done on the reception area. “The more people know, the better off you are,” Bernstein says. For a while, attorneys and staff members had to occupy “swing” space on a different floor. But the goal, says Bernstein, was to avoid moving people more than once. Nonetheless, one unfortunate lateral partner was shifted about four times. “She wins my eternal gratitude,” says Bernstein. Now that the end of the renovation is in sight, Bernstein is looking back on the project with a kind of wistfulness. Even the partners who initially griped about renovating, she reports, are proud to show off the new space to clients. And so she says, “I would do it again in a heartbeat.”
Debra Bruno can be reached at [email protected].

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