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First, they killed the duck prints. Then they trashed the Currier & Ives. And finally they axed the mahogany paneling. Random acts of vandalism? Not a chance. These are deliberate assaults on the traditional law firm, perpetrated by brand-name architects and interior designers, the hired guns of today’s trend-conscious partners. The result can be disconcerting. Law firms now look so sleek they could be mistaken for art galleries, high-fashion boutiques, and restaurants. “I feel like I’m at Le Cirque,” says Boston lawyer Eric Parker, who frequently litigates against big firms. “I don’t know whether I should eat there or get my will done.” Law firms now look mah-velous, but what about the poor souls who labor there? And therein lies the rub: Money can buy you barrels of Jeff Koons puppies, slabs of Carrara marble, and a forest of exotic woods, but it doesn’t guarantee that certain je ne sais quoi. Consider, for instance, Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom’s new offices in Times Square. Designed by the Calvin Klein of architecture firms, Gensler, the space is full of undulating curves, contrasting blond and dark woods, and hard, shiny surfaces. It oozes chic. So much so that you’d expect a flock of leggy gazelles in black to come swooping by any moment for their double-skim-latte cappuccino fix. But instead of legal goddesses gliding across the high-gloss stone floors of the 37th-floor reception area, it’s a stampede of hungry lawyers at noon on their way to the cafeteria. Rumpled, worn, and slouchy, they are not a sleek lot; they could have been plucked from a business-casual mall. All over the law firms of America, countless Danny DeVitos are trying to look nonchalant, perched on their tubular-steel Mies van der Rohe chairs. And it’s not just a Skadden problem — though poor Skadden has the burden of sharing the same building with the Conde Nast empire, that trendier-than-thou publisher of Vogue. Life used to be simpler. In the old days, lawyers blended in with the setting. Cloaked in their dark suits, lawyers faded into the woodwork — literally and reassuringly. In the ’80s, the motto became “Dress for Success,” but now, it’s more like “Dress for Home Depot.” The proliferation of casual wear in corporate law firms is creating aesthetic havoc. On the better days, lawyers don polo shirts and khakis. But beyond that, things can get scary: Picture a sea of pasty faces swimming in pastel sweat suits or a phalanx of bodies squeezed into Madras slacks or skimpy sundresses. Now imagine all of this against a backdrop of monochromatic colors and geometric lines. The juxtaposition of the disciplined architecture and the sloppy clothes is almost Felliniesque. The sad truth is that most lawyers — men and women — look better wrapped in tidy, dark business suits. Suits may not be so comfortable or expressive of individuality — but that’s exactly their virtue. At the very least, they give those not blessed with natural pizzazz a modicum of dignity. But perhaps such heightened design sensitivity misses the point. The architects of these grand creations, for one, do not take things so personally. They aren’t getting hot and bothered about the folks who work in their pristine designs. In fact, they’re philosophical: “Attractive spaces give people diversion,” says Gensler architect Chris Murray. “The Roman temples and the Gothic cathedrals have always lifted the human spirit … . That way you don’t notice what kind of socks people are wearing.”

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