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When attorneys at Dickstein Shapiro want Starbucks coffee, they don’t have to schlep down the elevator and wander around I Street in search of that double espresso. And they certainly don’t have to leave their office when a case is just not going well and they want the comfort of a chocolate-chip cookie by a warm fire. Dickstein Shapiro is one of many firms in Washington and throughout the country that are hiring architecture and design firms to put in more high-end amenities, such as fireside cafeterias that serve Starbucks coffee and lounge areas with soft seating, unique lighting, and funky art. Other firms are taking out the heavy dark-wood furniture law firms are known for and putting in lighter desks and chairs to update the look and feel of the firm. Much of this is being done in the name of recruiting and retention. With large law firms competing for the top law school graduates, the look and feel of the firm is essential. One thing law firms are doing is shifting their looks from the traditional stuffy and conservative settings to environments that are more comfortable and homelike, all in the quest to attract new, young talent and keep the current work force happy. “Our real focus is to create a place and a space where people feel more at home, where they have a sense that the organization cares about their well-being,” says Michael Nannes, chairman of Dickstein. Dickstein is in the process of putting the finishing touches on its new office space, which includes the Fireside Caf�, where attorneys can get hot meals, snacks, and sandwiches between 7:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. The firm didn’t have a cafeteria in its former space on L Street Northwest, where it spent the past 30 years. But when Dickstein Shapiro moved its headquarters in early July to International Square at 1825 I St. N.W., the firm decided it was time to put in a cafeteria for convenience and community. The design is contemporary, with a glass-enclosed stone fireplace surrounded by soft armchairs and low tables. The space, which features earth-tone colors, also includes a bar area as well as banquettes and individual tables. Designers exposed the ceiling and used drop lighting rather than the typical fluorescent lights to illuminate the space. The cafeteria also partly wraps around an open atrium, bringing in lots of natural light. A separate dining room also is attached — separated by a wall of glass doors — for private events. Nannes says the caf� brings together different people in the firm, from partners and young associates to support staff, who might not otherwise have mingled over a BLT. It makes people in the firm feel more connected to the organization and each other, which goes back to that retention issue. But equally as important is the firm’s ability to attract young, fresh talent. Nannes said many potential hires are shown the cafeteria as one of the many draws of the firm. “When people walk in and they see the people are happy in a place that’s nice, it helps,” Nannes says. “It helps because the best sales people should be the associates.” Law firm designers say the transformation of office space started taking place nearly 10 years ago, as the legal work force started shifting toward a system that uses fewer secretaries and support staff, opening up more square footage in the office. Law firms are turning that extra space into places that provide some in-house relief to employees. “A lot of these folks work very long hours and they want to make them as comfortable as possible while they’re doing that,” says Jodie Leppa, project manager and interior designer at the Minneapolis office of SmithGroup, an architecture and design firm that also has a Washington office. In the past five years, law firms have started looking at design changes as a way to recruit young new hires, says Steve Martin, a principal in the Washington office of Gensler, an architecture and design firm. “Firms are competing to recruit the best talent from law schools,” says Martin, who helped to design Dickstein’s new headquarters. “The space and the amenities the firm has to offer play an important role in that.” Many firms have not changed their look in more than a decade and are taking an opportunity to tailor their image to fit with more modern designs. When administrators at Arent Fox started looking at their 20-year-old space on Connecticut Avenue Northwest, they realized the office was in need of some fresh paint and carpeting. But they were also facing a lease that ended in five years, so they didn’t want to do a complete overhaul of the office if there was the possibility that they might move. The firm’s solution was to replace former secretarial bays that had turned into unattractive storage areas with lounge areas for work and pleasure, a project that was completed earlier this year. The firm also hired Gensler to handle the project. One of the former storage areas became the Commons, a trendy lounge where staff can get fresh fruit and coffee in the mornings and cookies in the afternoon. The space has soft armchairs and low tables, a center island with bar stools where snacks and drinks are served, and a plasma television. Designers also used thin fluorescent lights and wrapped blue film around them to create a unique bluish tint to the room. The space also features floor-to-ceiling Arent Fox promotional advertisements. “What we wanted with this was a different kind of energy,” says Joanne Schehl, a member of Arent Fox’s executive committee and the partner in charge of the firm’s renovation. “We wanted it to be more youthful, a more energetic kind of feel.” A SELLING POINT The space is used on the tour of the firm to potential hires and is seen as a place where firm employees can come together to socialize and relax. “So many people have said they don’t go down to Starbucks anymore,” Schehl adds. “They’re not leaving the building and they’re in a place where they’re running into their colleagues.” Several other former secretarial bays in the Arent Fox office also were turned into lounges where attorneys can collaborate on projects and find some quiet time on a couch or soft chair. Thelen Reid & Priest also has added more spots in its 701 8th St. N.W. office, where it has been since June 2005, for employees to mix and mingle. In fact, since more research is being done electronically, the firm transformed its library, which had once been a quiet academic research area. It did away with the carrels, cut down on the number of shelves, and added soft seating. “It’s more of a social space than a work space,” says Andrew Ness, managing partner of the firm’s Washington office. The firm, which moved to the space after spending 15 years on Pennsylvania Avenue Northwest also redesigned its lunch area to be a much more open space with a colorful backdrop on one side, a glass wall on the other side, and a balcony that shoots off the main room for outdoor seating. Employees also can mingle at some of the smaller lounge areas on each floor of the office. “If your office looks staid and old-fashioned, with a lot of dark wood and paintings of hunting scenes on the walls, that sends a different message than having a very modern clean design,” Ness says. “You’re seen as a more forward-looking, more current, more 21st century firm.” Like many firms, Covington & Burling wanted to give attorneys amenities to make their hectic lives easier. Covington started renovating its space seven years ago, expanding its cafeteria — which is open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner — and knocking out several walls to create a more collaborative environment, as well as putting in a fitness center and day care center. “If we make those things more accessible, then we believe we get it back in more creative thinking and more productivity,” says John Waters, executive director at Covington. In addition to lounge areas, law firm conference centers, where firms can hold partner meetings and other events, are being redesigned to bring in more light. Some are even being moved to the top floor, where a stairway in the conference center leads to a rooftop terrace, as it does in Dickstein Shapiro’s conference center. Other firms are moving their conference centers to the reception areas as a way to showcase the space to visitors. Sometimes a change just means lighter colors. Law firms such as Willkie Farr & Gallagher are moving out their dark, conservative furniture and putting in light wood desks and book shelves, bright colors on the walls, indirect lighting, and curved walls. “The design of the entire office was geared to making it inviting and warm,” says Kevin Clark, administrative partner for the Washington office of Willkie Farr. “The work environment is a big component of retention.” Clark and administrators at many other firms say that the changes are largely driven by the next generation of lawyers who want a new look in their work environments. Clients also are a major factor in the appearance and atmosphere of their lawyer’s office, law firms say. “As a service industry you want your clients to feel comfortable, welcome and warm,” Clark adds. But despite all these updates, law firms need to find a careful balance between looking hip and being functional and serious. “If you have a space that’s over the top, clients say, �What am I paying for?’ Nannes says. “We’re looking for comfortable and classy but not over the top.” But some admit that the old guard in the legal world is resisting the change. Schehl recalls an older attorney at Arent Fox saying the new lounge looked like the lobby of a trendy hotel. Taking the comment as a compliment, Schehl thanked him. The attorney, however, had not meant it as a compliment. “It’s not the old law firm feeling,” she says. “As you might imagine, people either love it or hate it.”
Tania Anderson is a freelance writer based in Arlington, Va.

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