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There remains an impression, certainly in the public consciousness, about what a lawyer’s office is supposed to look like: dark oak floors, wing-back chairs, leather couches, and floor-to-ceiling shelves of dusty law books that bear incomprehensible Latin phrases such as “Corpus Juris Secundum.” Some tradition-bound attorneys feel compelled to perpetuate this stereotype, adding to the gravitas of their decor by locating themselves in towering downtown edifices that dominate the landscape in a way that suggests their firm’s ability to dominate the opposition. The trick is to design a law office that evokes tradition without seeming obsolete, that looks respectable without feeling staid, that says rich without screaming, “Hey, we make lots of money here!” Then again, there are other lawyers who are breaking the mold as well as the molding, who are building imaginative digs that please themselves rather than some preconceived notion of what a client expects. Their law offices are expressions of who they are rather than what they do. That self-expression creates an intimacy between lawyer and client that enables the professional bond to grow easily, naturally. There is still another group of lawyers, solos mostly, who have turned away from the traditional law office model and are engaging in the minimalist practice of law. They are lawyers without borders, choosing instead to meet clients at say, a nearby Starbucks, or in court. Some of them find it more comfortable, and certainly cheaper, to office out of their homes. They use modern technology — cell phones, fax machines, computers — to give the appearance of a more formidable practice. They are baby lawyers, lawyers verging on retirement, attorneys practicing law and parenthood in delicate balance. Although their numbers are growing, neither group — minimalist or alternative — counts many among them. Yet those interviewed for this article share something in common, something they found lacking if they officed in more conventional space: They actually enjoy going to work. ART FOR LAW’S SAKE When you work at Dallas’ Kilgore & Kilgore, there is no need for morning coffee to shake loose the cobwebs. All you have to do is stare at the art. The firm’s entrance alone would wake up the sleepiest of secretaries: big, bright, colorful irregularly shaped geometrics jutting off a galvanized and stainless steel backdrop. Certainly there are firms that have amassed wonderful works of art to grace their interiors, but Kilgore & Kilgore has taken collection to a new level. Its office is a museum, and a museum is its office. And not just any museum: the first museum in the country dedicated to MADI art, a worldwide art movement that grew out of the revolutionary fervor of artists who felt oppressed during the 1940s by the dictatorship of then-President Juan Peron. No one seems to know the precise meaning of the term MADI although some speculate it has to do with dialectic materialism — the theoretical foundation of Marxism. “MADI artists wanted to make art for the common man,” says Kilgore partner Bill Masterson, the driving force behind the museum. “The art isn’t representational or symbolic. It’s just art for art’s sake. If you try to understand it, you are trying too hard.” Masterson’s wife Dorothy introduced him to MADI art by introducing him to MADI artist Volf Roitman, the husband of her childhood friend. When the firm purchased a dilapidated building in the uptown district of Dallas for its new offices, Masterson hired Roitman to design its eye-popping MADI facade and to incorporate a MADI museum within the law complex. Masterson estimates the cost of renovation to be somewhere around $200,000. The museum is a separate nonprofit corporation, whose $100,000 annual budget is largely subsidized by Masterson. No other MADI museum exists in the United States, and no other MADI facade appoints the entrance of a building — law firm or otherwise. But to Masterson, it seems like a natural fit. Kilgore & Kilgore does “contingent-fee litigation,” Masterson says, “The MADI movement tries to give the average person access to the art world while we try to give the average person access to the judicial system.” Since the museum’s official opening in February 2003, it has been a great source of business promotion, although Masterson can’t say for certain if the space has generated any new revenue. Clients appear to enjoy the art, says Masterson, who seems as optimistic as the art that is his passion. “Every day when I come to work, I always come in the front. I just love the facade of this building.” Although the law office remains separate from the adjoining museum, the firm takes depositions in the museum, surrounded by bold geometric sculptures that defy shape and uniquely colored paintings that defy interpretation. In what is otherwise an adversarial atmosphere, a space dedicated to beauty, Masterson says, makes being uncivil less appealing. “You can object and bellyache about that last question being nonresponsive,” he maintains. “But when you share the same art, people are just easier to deal with. It has a calm-the-beast quality.” THINKING OUTSIDE THE BOXCAR “I am not a train geek,” protests Houston solo Timothy Hootman, who has garnered much media attention for creating a unique law office environment by renovating a boxcar, a Pullman and a caboose. “I have just always messed around with architecture.” His first venture was in his hometown of La Porte, where he rehabbed a grocery store, circa 1940, and set up his first law practice in the early ’90s. The property had French windows, a U-shaped library and a surrealistic outdoor mural that bore a resemblance to Hootman at work. “The place was choice,” he recalls. After seven years, he left La Porte, accepting a job as a staff attorney with the 1st Court of Appeals in Houston. Contemplating his return to private practice, he purchased property on the outskirts of downtown Houston. He envisioned two designs, one abstractly modern, the other a railway office. He says he chose the latter because rail cars — cabooses in particular — “were skyrocketing in value.” He purchased a 1920 Pullman passenger car because of its size and sense of history. “It’s a classic train car from the heyday of railroad transport,” he says. It was also large enough to live in, which he did. He turned its 850 square feet into a studio apartment. “Not bad for a single guy,” says Hootman, who doubts his new fiancee wants to call a railway car their home. He later purchased a 1960 insulated boxcar, which would serve as his primary law office and library. A green Burlington Northern caboose would complete the office and become his reception area. A raised concrete walkway joins together the three cars, which sit beside rather than in front of each other. Hootman says his clients enjoy the “railroad station,” finding it user-friendly and fun. But he didn’t design it for them. “I laid it out essentially for me. I needed a place where it felt good to work.” He has given much thought to why more attorneys don’t office in alternative spaces. “The law forces you to preserve tradition,” Hootman says. “That means presenting yourself as someone who doesn’t rock the status quo and works in an uncontroversial office.” Hootman only recalls one other Texas lawyer who has broken the work space barrier and created something bold. His name is Michael Valentine, and he turned an old bait shop in Seabrook into his law office. “For most lawyers,” Hootman adds, “it’s just less risky to go with what has always worked.” BAIT AND SWITCH When Michael Valentine was general counsel for a now-bankrupt Houston electric company, he would pass a small Spanish-styled, pie-shaped building at the intersection of NASA Parkway and Highway 146 on his drive to work. He liked the property so much, when it posted for sale in 1999, he purchased it. “I bought it as a way to get away,” he recalls. “I lived around the corner and thought I might work there instead of at the kitchen table.” The building has an illustrious history, constructed in 1939, Valentine says, as an icehouse that sold beer to thirsty fishermen. In the 1940s, it became a beer, bait and tackle shop that owed its success to the drawbridge that would cause people to stop (and drink) while the boats passed by. In the late ’70s, it became Curley’s Corner, the new owner maintaining its popularity as a beer and bait store. In 1985, a local contractor purchased the going concern, Valentine says, but damage from a hurricane and the drawbridge closing had harmed business. The contractor had no choice but to close the bait shop. Twice, he remodeled the building turning it into his construction company office and designing its Spanish-mission motif. After a fight with the town of Seabrook over parking, Valentine says, the contractor put the place up for sale, which is when Valentine bought it. It wasn’t until 1999 that Valentine opened his law office in the former bait shop. He prepared tax returns and maintained a general business practice, but left the building as is, until he outgrew it in May 2003. Valentine doubled the size of the space (still small at 600 square feet) by finishing out the second floor, which had been a loft. Two sides of the triangular building are comprised of a metal grid of windows 20 feet tall. There is a rooftop view of Galveston Bay and a 7-foot, chrome-plated shark above the sign indicating Valentine Law Firm. But after $50,000 of renovations by Valentine and more than $100,000 spent by the contractor, many locals still refer to his law office as Curley’s Corner. “I get a lot of people who say, ‘I always wanted to come in here and I needed a lawyer so I called you,’” Valentine says. Valentine rides his bicycle to work, walks to the courthouse, and his “official dress code” is shorts and a golf shirt. Each day at lunch, an elderly Italian client brings Valentine authentic Italian food. And sometimes by mid-afternoon, clients can see him through his windows taking a power snooze in his big leather chair. It’s not a stress-free practice, he says, but it’s close. “I have designed a nice life for myself.” THE MINIMALISTS Staggering overhead gave Bertram Vandenberg pause when he contemplated starting his own firm in Dallas with Chris Morton, one of his buddies at Southern Methodist University Dedman School of Law. After the two passed the bar in 2002, they formed Vandenberg & Morton and began looking for office space. Despite a depressed market, they found costs prohibitive. Late one night, while Morton was searching the Internet, he stumbled on something called a virtual office. “For $240 per month, we get 15 hours of conference time, two phone lines, a secretary to answer calls and a mailbox.” It differs from, say, an executive suite arrangement, Vandenberg says, in that “we are not actually officing there.” They use Kinko’s for photocopying and type legal documents on their home computers. And when it’s time to meet clients, they go to their virtual office and make certain they don’t run over their allotted 15 hours, which they never have. They take most cases that walk through the virtual door. “It’s basically a general practice,” Vandenberg says. “I call it survival law.” Vandenberg tells clients he is reachable by phone — that he is never really in the office. “But it is nice to have a business location — clients sort of expect that,” he says. “It adds an air of legitimacy to what you are doing, especially if you are a young lawyer and have a 4-year old running around the house.” Then again, being able to remain home to care for his daughter is a big perk of his virtual office. “While I was in law school, I got hooked on being papa. It was hard to suddenly stop after I graduated. That’s why hanging a shingle made sense to me.” Lisa Shapiro Strauss understands too well the intricate balance between family and work space. A former Dallas County prosecutor, she married, moved to Houston, started a family and began to practice law as a solo in 2001. But with two small children, she felt uncomfortable meeting her largely criminal-defense clientele at her home. Because she had a courthouse practice, she realized she could operate without a formal office. In the hallways or the holding cell, she meets and interviews clients — depending on whether they are on bond or in jail. If a client wants to contact her, they can reach her by cell phone. Her business card lists a post office box as her address. What paper practice she does have, gets done on her desktop computer at home, “generally while my kids are napping,” she says. She has no qualms about interviewing clients or witnesses at a nearby Starbucks. “There is always a Starbucks nearby,” she jokes, and her clients don’t seem to mind. “I am pretty forthright in telling them I office out of my home,” she says. “Most people understand once you tell them you’re a young mom.” If a child gets sick or her childcare falls through, Strauss has a network of lawyers — several of them women with children — who will cover her court appearances, as she will for them. It’s difficult, however, to feel professional when you are talking to a court clerk on the phone, she says, and your child is screaming or demands your attention. Because she won’t tell a client to come to her home to sign a document, she feels obliged to bring the paperwork to them — or a nearby Starbucks. She feels uncomfortable telling opposing counsel that she offices out of her home, sensing a condescending attitude, at times, if she does. “I am not doing this to save a buck,” she defends. “I am just buying flexibility, which gives me the ability to raise my children and practice law at the same time.” It is seldom easy. The demands on her time are great — her children are needy, her clients even needier. What she sacrifices in prestige and income, she gets back in quality of life. But for Strauss, who is expecting her third child in November, the tradeoff is worth it. Read the pros and cons of turning timeworn houses into homey law offices.

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