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After clients began telling Houston-based Vinson & Elkins lawyers they would prefer to close deals at New York firms with high-tech conference centers, corporate partners David Keyes and Mark Spradling decided the firm had to upgrade its conference rooms. It was such an issue that some of the firm’s transactional lawyers were in the same corner as the clients, Keyes says, even though that meant the lawyers would have to travel to New York to close a deal. But just a few months after Keyes and Spradling put the idea on the table in January, the 783-lawyer firm is opening a new, fully-wired conference center, including a videoconferencing room, at a cost of more than $250,000. “The business attorneys were saying we needed it to do our work and the clients expect it for a firm of our size and stature,” Keyes says. Vinson & Elkins isn’t the only large Texas firm rewiring and revamping conference rooms to make it easier on lawyers who bring laptop computers to closings and those who need to be in constant contact over the Internet with their offices or their client’s offices. A number of other firms that handle big deals, including Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld and Jenkens & Gilchrist, both in Dallas, and Houston firms Fulbright & Jaworski and Baker Botts, are also incorporating more technology into their conference rooms. “When you look around and see that you are running cords from various places [because] people coming to a meeting, whether they are clients or lawyers, need hookups, then you realize you need more connections into the room,” says Roy Nolen, administrative partner at Baker Botts. “It’s advanced. It’s the technology. It’s the tools the lawyers are asking for.” Keyes says a couple of incidents in the fall of 1999 spurred him to lobby his partners for a new conference center. He says he needed a large space for a closing for Enron Corp. in late December 1999. The only room available and wired was the firm’s courtroom — and he had to bump some practice groups who were planning on using the room for year-end meetings. “To try to do a four- or five-day business closing, you really disrupt the firm,” he says. Keyes recalls another closing in the fall of 1999 that took place in a very nice conference room at the firm with windows offering a pleasing view of downtown Houston and cushy leather chairs around a large table. But he says that picture is marred by his memory of a group of lawyers from Chicago who had to hook their computers to a mass of wires pulled out of a cabinet near the door of the conference room. “They were sitting at window ledges pulling spaghetti wire out, phone wires, to get their computers attached and that’s sort of how they did their typing if they wanted to be connected to anything,” he recalls. So Keyes says he and Spradling talked with some other corporate lawyers at V&E about their technology needs, and brought it to the firm’s space planning committee, which recommended the conference room project to firm management. The new large conference room at V&E can hold up to 40 people, although dividers can split it into two. It features outlets for Internet access built right into the conference table and a long wall is covered with a white board where lawyers and clients can work out details of deals. Spradling says the V&E conference center is as comfortable and functional as most of the ones he’s seen in New York. And unlike the case at many New York firms, even the telephone rooms are equipped with heavy-duty air conditioning, he notes. UPGRADE, PLEASE Other large Texas-based firms are upgrading their conference rooms to make it easier for lawyers to do deals. More than a year ago, 944-lawyer Akin, Gump redid a floor in its offices in Dallas into a conference center with 21 conference rooms. “We moved walls, bought all new furniture and laid all new wires for phone and Internet access on that floor,” says partner Kenneth Menges, chairman of the office practice committee in Dallas. Menges says the layout of the new deal center, with a grouping of conference rooms and smaller adjacent break-out rooms, instead of the traditional style of conference rooms interspersed throughout the firm, works well with how deals are done today. The firm’s Washington, D.C., office also set up a conference center, he says. Baker Botts rewired most of its conference rooms several years ago, says Nolen, but plans a new conference center in a pending revamp of the firm’s Houston offices. The firm already has conference centers in its offices in Austin, Dallas and New York and in a more decentralized fashion in Washington, D.C., he says. The 577-lawyer firm is still mulling over what to do about videoconferencing, he says. Fulbright & Jaworski recently put in new wiring in existing conference rooms, totally redid the largest one in the firm’s office in Houston and installed videoconferencing equipment in all of the firm’s offices, says Jack Vaughan, administrative partner in the 750-lawyer firm. “It’s internally driven as well as externally. Everybody just wants it,” he says. And at Jenkens & Gilchrist, executive director Roger Hayse says the 500-lawyer firm finished out a conference suite at its offices in Dallas in 1999, equipping rooms with Internet access and videoconferencing capability. Hayes says the firm may move its offices in Austin and Houston, and would put in state-of-the-art technology in new offices when they are built out. Hayse says a growing percentage of lawyers at the firm, particularly those working for high-tech and technology-oriented clients, are asking for upgrades to the conference rooms. Notes Hayse, “It’s like anything else in the law firm; you’ve got a certain number of lawyers who have a crying need.”

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