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If only these walls could speak, they’d be saying: Bet your old man didn’t have zebra stripes on his office walls! If your old man was a lawyer, he didn’t have to. The design of his office was intended to fill clients with as much reassuring confidence as could be inferred from unrelenting dark wood. Today, confidence comes in many guises, and office decor is as much a lure for young talent as it is a statement that speaks to clients. Sometimes it’s also a jarring, in-your-face image that takes some getting used to. For good or ill, however, you are not going to forget the entrance to Boston’s Brown, Rudnick, Freed & Gesmer. The work of contemporary conceptual artist Sol LeWitt, the firm’s double-height lobby walls are painted with big, undulating stripes of black and white, and accented with red Eero Saarinen Womb chairs. The effect is “a hip sense of style that is atypical of Boston law firms,” according to Interior Design, which featured the firm’s offices in 1999. The message, explains Marilyn Stempler, a litigation partner at Brown Rudnick and a graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design, is: “We are bold, forward-thinking, innovative in our strategies.” Stempler supervised the project, along with several partners at the firm who are contemporary art devotees. Many of their clients — Fortune 500 companies, high-tech entrepreneurs, and increasingly, international businesses — “know exactly what it is,” says Stempler. As for the ones that don’t, well — “The purpose of art is to raise people’s consciousness.” Stempler admits that some colleagues might have preferred a more conventional look but says the LeWitt has been good for recruitment. “A number of students have mentioned that the art represented the people they met here.” But you can’t always judge a law firm’s message by its stripes. Like the new corporate workplace, the new law office must be nimble, able to quickly and efficiently respond to the changing needs of clients and staff alike. Multipurpose rooms, conference centers, and full-service dining rooms are now standard issue. Libraries are smaller, support staff is clustered, file storage is high-density and compact. Image and prestige are still important, but law firms want to make it clear that client fees pay for brainpower and technological savvy, not for expensive chandeliers fashioned in exquisite detail by a descendant of Louis XIV. “Law firms are more intriguing to work with than they were 10 or 15 years ago,” says Debra Lehman-Smith, whose firm, Lehman-Smith + McLeish of Washington, D.C., is responsible for designing 2.5 million square feet of law office space. “There used to be formulas for everything,” Lehman-Smith says. “Attorney-secretary ratios, how much filing and storage you’d need. But the business paradigm has changed. Law firms have different business goals now, and there are a lot of differences from firm to firm.” As Tom Wolfe might have written as a younger man: Tyranny of the grid disrupted! Hierarchies of partner-associate office space flattened! Squatters’ rights to corner offices and the best views threatened! Hierarchy: It’s one of those four-syllable words that can start a fight in any faculty lounge in France or, evidently, in design shops bidding for a law firm’s business. “Most of our New York clients maintain a differentiation between partner and associate offices,” says Jonathan Butler of Butler Rogers Baskett, whose firm has done more than 50 law firm projects in the last two years alone. “Some of our friends on the East Coast still do traditional hierarchical designs,” says Richard Brayton, principal of San Francisco’s Brayton & Hughes Design Studio, whose firm has done architecture and design work for several Am Law 100 firms in California. “But that has changed a lot out here.” Gary Weiss, partner-in-charge of Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe’s Menlo Park, Calif., office, saw design as a way to enhance the collaborative nature of the firm’s work, as well as a way to make the office appealing to Silicon Valley clients and a “fun and attractive” place for associates. Working with Seattle-based Callison Architecture, Weiss managed to reach some of his goals. His offices now have high-tech trimmings. As if anticipating California’s current energy crisis, the firm opted for ecologically sound building materials. And, the space is equipped with lots of “teaming,” dining, and war rooms. But a funny thing happened on the way to the workplace revolution. When Weiss and other partners proposed “blurring the distinction” between partner and associate offices, the associates nixed the idea of same-size work spaces. They argued that they wanted “something to shoot for.” So much for stripping away the trappings of success. Technology is another four-syllable word, the ultimate driving force behind contemporary law office design. Technology provides the rationale for everything from the fluid use of office space to curved walls that break the monotony of the grid. In the future present, technology is ubiquitous. Conference and cafeteria tables include hidden laptop docking ports, and T-1 cables are encased in walls. Viewing screens retract into ceilings, and conference calls now flow through tiny beam-me-aboard-Scotty tabletop controls. The irony is that, as technological devices are becoming smaller, the materials used to convey the message that I am an extraordinary high-tech law firm are by necessity old-economy mainstays — chrome, aluminum, glass, stone, wood, steel. Some things, of course, have not changed. The sculpture in the reception area may be dazzling, but the halls of the new law office are as funereal as ever. If a firm has a great view, the designer tries not to block it; if anything, the views are incorporated into public spaces. And despite the dictates of design theory, the profession will never be paper-free. The work space will continue to evolve to fit the moment. And the message, if there is one, will be written on the walls.

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