As anyone who works in Washington knows, D.C. law firms have been active on the real estate front in recent months. Many firms are choosing to double-down and remain near the central business district area of downtown. McDermott Will & Emery, on the other hand, set itself on a new course last week by moving all of its lawyers and operations to Capitol Hill. The more than 400 lawyers and staff are settling into the new space as we write.
A little more than two years ago, we began searching for a new location as the firm’s 15-year lease at 600 13th St. N.W. drew to an end. This created an immediate challenge for the firm. But it also created an opportunity for us to think about the future of our Washington office, real estate development trends and where we believed the legal services market was headed over the next few decades. As part of our search, we looked at everything from crime statistics to ceiling height, to commute times, to restaurant and retail offerings, to the cost of square footage. There are so many great neighborhoods in Washington that it made our task even harder.
Our new home at 500 North Capitol St. — just steps from the U.S. Capitol — came on the radar late in our process. There were many late nights debating what a true “Washington” office should be, and where it should be located. The fact that most firms, including our own, were located downtown and along the K Street corridor struck us more as the consequence of real estate development in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s than a compelling reason for staying put. To the contrary, due to growth of the metropolitan D.C. area as well as post-9/11 security measures, traffic in the central business district has become increasingly difficult, even as real estate prices in that area have continued as the highest in the city.
The more we thought about our clients, the more a move to Capitol Hill made strategic sense. It made sense due to its proximity to places like the U.S. Congress, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and the U.S. courts, where our lawyers practice on a daily basis. It made sense because it is a distinctively D.C. neighborhood — precisely the kind of branding that a firm like ours wants as its Washington practice gains prominence. It is just steps from Union Station and Amtrak, easing travel for clients and our lawyers up and down the East Coast. And it made sense due to fortunate timing — Capitol Hill is poised for a new wave of development and revitalization, starting with the rise in popularity of areas such as the H Street corridor and including the future $7 billion redevelopment of Union Station proposed by Amtrak. The prime real estate available today in Capitol Hill will not be there for long.
We did not merely want a new building, however. We wanted a home — a place where we could play a significant role in its design, functionality and branding. The office — now called “the McDermott Building” — was completely redesigned and redeveloped to meet the current and future needs of a 21st century law firm.
We also wanted to be in a neighborhood that was intellectually stimulating and that is becoming one of Washington’s most desirable locations, where new neighbors will add further texture to an already fascinating locale. To take full advantage of this dynamic location, we added a state-of-the-art conference facility and a 3,500-square-foot rooftop terrace that offers one of the best views of the U.S. Capitol, Union Station and the Washington Monument.
We hope and expect the McDermott Building to become a fixture on Capitol Hill — a destination for business meetings, policy briefings, legal discourse and noteworthy events. Although many of our friends in the bar currently reside near our old office location, much will change in the next decade. This city is changing. Law is changing. The demands of our clients are changing. And the way we use space is changing. To compete in this new marketplace, law firms need to think strategically, not merely about how they practice, but where they practice. Capitol Hill is the right fit for McDermott. We look forward to seeing you around the neighborhood.
Bobby R. Burchfield and Paul M. Thompson are co-partners-in-charge of McDermott Will & Emery’s Washington office.