Jeffrey Lesk.
Jeffrey Lesk. (Photo: Diego M. Radzinschi/NLJ)

Law firms, Washington’s largest private-sector real estate tenants, have razed tradition to cater more to the city’s young intelligentsia when choosing new locations, according to some of the city’s law firm and real estate leaders.

Lately, law firms have prioritized cutting real estate costs and shrinking square footage, allowing them to build shared tech-friendly spaces within office floors. Firm leaders also listen more to the design preferences of millennials among their ranks. And fewer firms view Pennsylvania Avenue as the ultimate Washington address, said Jeff Lesk, Nixon Peabody’s D.C. office managing partner, speaking on a panel Wednesday morning.

“There is no prestigious address in this city” for firms, he said. He predicted that within the next decade, major law firms in Washington will relocate to law-firm-lacking neighborhoods such as Southeast Washington, the Southwest Waterfront, near Third Street Northwest—even Rosslyn, Va., with its “killer view.” (Lesk told The Washington Post last year he asked his firm to consider those areas.)

Although Pennsylvania Avenue, which is lined with large firms, and neighborhoods like Georgetown and Farragut Square draw firms looking for downtown feel and views, younger lawyers prioritize work-life balance, the panelists said. That means firms will accommodate them by moving to more livable neighborhoods that encourage shorter commute times and biking and walking to work.

“Who are we designing for? People who are 60- to 65-years-old today, or people who are in their 20s and 30s today?” Lesk said, noting the typical firm lease length of 10 or 15 years. Nixon Peabody plans to move next year from its Ninth Street address across from the FBI headquarters to a Ninth Street space near newly built CityCenterDC, a few blocks north.

Brookfield Office Properties’ Greg Meyer; Diana Horvat, principal at architecture firm Perkins+Will; and David Doherty, director of interiors at Gilbane Building Co., also spoke Wednesday. Sherry Kushman, head of brokerage firm Cushman & Wakefield’s legal-sector advisory group, moderated the discussion.

The speakers addressed a packed ballroom of real estate and other professionals at the Mayflower Renaissance Hotel in Washington. BisNow Media hosted the event. D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray delivered a keynote address that pitched the city on its recent strengths, including in walkability, public education, economic expansion and “coolness.”

Gray commended Covington & Burling, Washington’s largest law office, for choosing to remain in the city with its upcoming office move from Pennsylvania Avenue to CityCenterDC.

“We think D.C. is a hugely attractive place to be,” Gray said.

Years ago, “there was a fear people would simply locate on the perimeter of the city and come in and do business in the city,” he added. “We think that is changing.”

In contrast with the panelists, Gray noted that Pennsylvania Avenue itself has power to draw significant tenants.

The National Law Journal earlier looked at how Washington’s law firm landscape is changing— plus maps.