See an expanded look at the changing D.C. law firm landscape. ()

Steptoe & Johnson LLP has a decision on its hands. Between now and the end of the year, the firm will choose whether to move its 300 Washington lawyers to a new office, or stay in the Dupont Circle building it constructed during the early 1980s.

So far, the firm’s “space committee” has thought about spots in “NoMa,” the budding modernist neighborhood north of Massachusetts Avenue and straddling North Capitol Street. They’ve looked around CityCenterDC, where Covington & Burling will move this fall. They’ve met a few times a month and talked with developers.

“We can just kick the can down the road or we can re-up for a term where we are,” firm chairman Philip West said. “It seems like it’s a good time to be in the market. There are a lot of opportunities.”

The opportunities are many because of the changing — and shrinking — landscape of law firms and a number of new developments aimed at attracting firms, the largest occupier of space outside of this company town’s ruling company, the government. Covington and Arnold & Porter will vacate buildings that for years clustered the densest group of attorneys in the city near Pennsylvania Avenue N.W. Those two firms alone will decamp with almost 900 lawyers for 790,000 freshly built square feet in buildings north and east of Metro Center.

Around the same time, a gaggle of firms will anticipate their leases ending after contracts of 10 or more years or shorter extensions that have allowed them to hunker down during the Great Recession. Also in the market for new leases are Latham & Watkins; Morgan, Lewis & Bockius; Venable; and Finnegan, Henderson, Farabow, Garrett & Dunner. Those four firms plus Steptoe have the potential to move more than 1,200 lawyers to different locations in the city. [See our map of the shifting law firm landscape.]

WEIGHING THE MOVE

These decisions aren’t easy. Firms considering a move must factor in everything from partner commuting patterns to the ability of their buildings to adapt to technology. Many of the decisions come down to costs and efficiency.

“We’re not going to put the Google campus in place for Steptoe & Johnson,” West said. “On the other hand, we’re probably not going to go to the cubicles that, frankly, our clients, who are cost-conscious, are moving to.”

West, who assumed Steptoe’s top leadership role in January, likes the Dupont Circle area because of its cosmopolitan nature — a place where people work, play and live.

Anthony Pierce, partner in charge of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld’s Washington office, likes the neighborhood, too.

“Having a set location is a good thing for both your employees and your clients,” Pierce said. “Obviously, the longer you’re in a building, the longer you know the landlord.”

Pierce isn’t alone. Some firms like their spaces so much, they’ve chosen to commit to another 15 or more years. Hogan Lovells is about to sign a lease that will keep the firm in its building until 2032.

Reed Smith announced last month it’d stay in its space at One Franklin Square, the Hines-owned building that’s so recognizable its dual-peak-capped roof made an appearance in a Dan Brown bestseller.

“To be totally honest, in life it’s easier if you can build somewhere else and move everyone over there,” said Patricia Hiltibidal, Reed Smith’s chief of office services, who handles real estate projects at the firm. “But when we went out in the market, we considered our own space in the mix, and we liked what our building had to offer.” There’s also logistics. Firms with lawyers in the hundreds and need for 200,000 square feet or more must assess locations two to three years before a move-in date, according to Jay Epstien, DLA Piper’s real estate practice chairman.

Washington has a harder time than most cities spreading vertically or horizontally. The 130-foot height limit, set by Congress in 1910, prompts buildings to be torn down or gutted, parking lots replaced (such as at CityCenter), or even, in the case of to-be-built Capitol Crossing, three city blocks to appear above Interstate 395.

WHAT FIRMS WANT

The developers of Capitol Crossing, Property Group Partners, hope to attract a law firms into some of their four buildings. To do it, the developers say they can tailor the space to appeal to younger partners and even law school recruits.

The secretarial bays won’t need to be as big as in years past, since lawyers now do their own typing. They won’t need as much room for libraries or document work. The building widths will be narrower, so natural light will touch more. Glass walls instead of windows, coffee spots instead of sprawling suites for rainmakers — those features could be key.

“I want to say this in very polite terms: The same way the corner offices are gone, these firms are becoming much more egalitarian,” said Jeff Sussman, Property Group Partners’ president. “Because, excuse me, sir, you may not be here in five years.”

Tastes can change as quickly. From the date a firm signs its lease to the move in date could usher in fresh developments in law firm interiors.

When LeBoeuf, Lamb, Greene & MacRae moved into 1101 New York Ave. N.W. in 2007, it nestled corner offices into rectangular “sawtooth” cut-ins in the building’s exterior. By 2012, when Dewey & LeBoeuf’s workers picked up their personal belongings and walked out upon the firm’s bankruptcy, the corner-office priority had gone out the window. Allen & Overy moved into 1 1/2 former Dewey floors, turning many corner offices into meeting rooms. And the high-end, dark wood in Dewey’s former general reception area? That had to go, too.

Now the priority is for light and white: Sun streams in on the 11th floor through layers of glass walls and bounces off the cream travertine tiles.

Contact Katelyn Polantz at kpolantz@alm.com.