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Washington Lawyer

Law Firms, Redesigned

From Washington Lawyer, June 2016

By Sarah Kellogg

Law Office DesignLaw offices have always been a subtle balance of modernity and tradition, but the richly detailed furnishings and highly polished dark wood that defined law offices in the past are being refashioned for a new century. Today's law offices juxtapose intimacy and grandeur, opacity and transparency, all in a contemporary mix of glass, metal, and foliage.

That's the allure of the new law office design. It is remarkably attentive to law firm customs, but also harmonizes the needs of a new generation of lawyers whose values are shifting away from the expansive corner office to a greater sense of mobility and community. The law office of today has become a destination for the law rather than a monument to it.

Renovations aren't driven by aesthetic anymore, either. The effects of the 2008 recession—streamlined budgets, outsourced services, cost-conscious clients, and staff reductions—have demanded a more economical approach to office operations and space acquisition. That budget sensitivity is reflected in the decision-making process around lease agreements, relocation expenses, and design costs.

"As architects and designers, we're not building for today. We're building for the next 10, 15, and 20 years," says Vandana Dake, an architect and principal with Alliance Architecture, which is working with the D.C. Bar on the design of its new headquarters. "It's fascinating to contemplate the future, especially for law firms that have seen so much change. We've tracked how they are changing, how the people are changing. There are more shared spaces, and there is a value for more collaboration."

A similar philosophy is driving the Bar's re-envisioning of its own landscape as it prepares to move into its future home in the Mount Vernon Triangle neighborhood. The Bar is determined to make its new headquarters, slated to open in Winter 2017, a place for members to come together to network and collaborate.

Meanwhile, the influx of millennials into law offices over the next decade will be transformational. By 2025 millennials—the youthful generation that embraces technology, flexibility, and 24-hour connectivity—will make up 75 percent of the global workforce. Working millennials have a wholly different approach to their jobs than their baby boomer parents, and the law office will need to reflect that new paradigm.

"The folks who are going to be partners by the time those 15-year office lease cycles are up are graduating from high school this year," says Christian Amolsch, Southeast regional practice area leader for professional services firms at Gensler, the global design company. "It's an interesting challenge for law firms from a generational perspective. They have to be thinking about those folks who are coming into the office in the future and still address the needs of their current staff."

Two other trends play a significant role in this wave of smart transformations in law office architecture and design in Washington, D.C.: aging infrastructure (local) and social camaraderie (national). Washington's antiquated office stock is particularly problematic. There are many mid-block buildings with light coming in from only one or two sides. And with their deep floor plates and resulting cavernous interiors, much of the District's older Class A buildings are unable to accommodate the new emphasis on diffused light, glass subdivisions, and evenly distributed space.

Additionally, the blurring of boundaries between work and home have turned contemporary offices into a social space as much as a workplace, and the creature comforts of coffee bars, cafeterias, greenery-laden terraces, offices with a view, and conversation nooks now are required features, even in law firms. One new law office will even offer a rooftop bocce court.

Our Future Home

D.C. Bar New Home at Night

When the D.C. Bar breaks ground for its new building this summer, it will be with knowledge that the technologically advanced and eco-friendly headquarters will fuse the best of urban design and architecture with the Bar's ambitious mission and goals. Read more about what you can expect to see at our new home.

Amenities aside, most redesigned law firms still don't come close to the edgy, hip workspaces of tech or social media companies where ping pong tables, music areas, rock climbing walls, and nap rooms are as common there as break rooms, conference rooms, and reception areas are in law offices.

"Law firms want to be first to be second because [a] firm's business is built on precedent," says Steve Polo, managing partner at the Washington, D.C.-based design firm OPX. "They're looking for other examples to bolster the argument, even in design. They are looking for their peers to accept these kinds of forward-looking changes in design before they're willing to. Innovation can be at arm's length in law firms, particularly as it pertains to their offices."

Like other decidedly less trendy professional industries such as accounting and medicine, law firms are starting to breathe new life into their old spaces, creating an exuberant and refined landscape that appeals to attorneys, staff, and clients, albeit less so to some hipsters. There is a sense of dynamism and formality, and the offices tend to reflect the unique personality of each firm by combining style and comfort for the "heads-down" work that has long marked the legal profession.

Firm Culture Matters

Architects and designers have always taken the pulse of their clients before tackling a major overhaul, but the process has become more essential, especially as firms juggle budgetary, operational, and generational issues. The new discovery process is equal parts sociology and anthropology, with a jolt of ethnographic research mixed in and, of course, design and architectural strategy.

With law firms, most design and architecture companies insist on going through an extensive exploration and strategy phase where they tease out what the clients need versus what they want. For some engagements, the law firm is given a laundry list of self-reflection homework: an operational survey, a cultural assessment, tech and process review, focus groups, and a scenario-planning exercise.

Designers prefer to come in early in the process to help guide firm discussions around relocation or redesign—a thorny choice that requires a substantial amount of strategic and budget planning. They note that it is helpful to have an outside expert assist in gauging what is needed, even when the decisions are based more on budgets than on taste. The missing element, they say, is planning for the human contingencies in a physical environment, and that's why self-assessments have proven to be exceptionally helpful.

"The change that's happening in law firm space needs is largely a result of [law firms'] changing business and a different financial model that they're moving into," says Christopher Budd, managing principal at STUDIOS Architecture, a design and architecture firm in Washington, D.C., that works with law firms. "It didn't necessarily change because they woke up one day and decided they wanted to work differently. Now they're being forced to analyze the physical environment and how they use space as they look at their budgets and business models."

For example, says Budd, some law firms are experimenting with putting newer associates and contract lawyers in open offices. Many of those firms are commodity-driven and not bespoke legal firms. They work under a formula and often have a great deal of turnover, so less space for pricey partner offices is a better financial model.

The open-plan concept hasn't gotten much traction in this region or nationally, although it has been widely embraced in the United Kingdom. Instead, U.S. law firms are opting for more mobility and efficiency in their interiors, along with generally smaller offices and more flexible multiuse spaces to avoid busting through the partner-office barrier.

As design firms reimagine the law office, they are guided by four key factors in their design decisions: well-being, space, community, and connectivity. These principles, while universal, have different values for different firms, and they often bubble up as discussion and decision points during the relocation and renovation process.

Standing Desk, quoteWell-Being. Thanks to millennials, the notion that an office can be both a workplace and a social center is becoming de rigueur, even in law firms. Designers bring in more light to workspaces using either glass walls or skylights to diminish claustrophobic interiors. Sit/stand or treadmill desks and more ergonomic options for chairs cater to employees' physical needs. Hidden alcoves help to recreate popular water cooler conversations, and terraces and rooftop decks with fire pits and shrubbery relieve stress. And don't forget the in-house coffee bars and cafeterias that offer healthy food options and relaxed dining.

"Candidly, we're in our building a lot," says Jennifer J. Bruton, the administrative partner for Venable LLP's Washington, D.C., office, which will move into its new location early next year. "We work very hard. We should be comfortable when we're here. We should be able to recreate while we're here. We want to have amenities to make it as comfortable as possible."

Space. Always at a premium in a city like Washington, space allotment becomes even more essential as law firms sign 10-, 15-, or 20-year leases. The size and uniformity of offices for partners and associates remains an oft-debated topic, and designers say it is being decided on a case-by-case basis today. One-size-fits-all offices are generally in the range of 165 square feet, although they can be larger depending on the office footprint. Other space concerns frequently arise when talk turns to inboarding associates and paraprofessionals, using flexible walls, offering client-only floors, building multiuse spaces, and determining the public–private space ratio in the office.

"I used to think the antipathy to one-size offices was ego," says Budd. "I do believe it is self-identity now. Partners want to be respected for the education they received and the service they perform, which is under siege and starting to be less respected externally. This is really a very central part to an attorney's identity. It's something that is deeply embedded in that profession and it's expectations-driven."

Community. Developing a greater sense of collaboration within the law firm is a high priority. No one is locked away behind closed doors in new offices, unless it's required for confidentiality. The strategies around community and collaboration include creating team rooms, grouping associates and paraprofessionals into "neighborhoods," establishing open workstations for contract attorneys, and creating "collaboration zones" for practice groups.

"At the end of the day, all these firms are driven by their culture," says Phil Olson, a principal at Alliance Architecture. "We get to design a facility that responds to all these cultures that are very different from firm to firm. Some embrace the concept of single-office size because they're flatter in their hierarchy. Other firms are holding on to the traditional makeup of larger partner offices because their culture is more hierarchical."

Connectivity. Office infrastructure has undergone significant change in the last decade, and it continues to evolve at a speedy clip. Trends in the tech industry are driving this Office Infrastructurepriority for all firms, although some have been more ambitious in going paperless, shrinking libraries, and adopting in-house mobility. Law firms have become and will continue to be technology-rich environments with cutting-edge communications systems, designers say.

"There is definitely more divergence in operational strategy in different law firms when it comes to technology," says Catherine Heath, managing principal at HYL Architecture. "Paper retention policies are different. There are different resources dedicated to going paperless and developing robust knowledge management systems. Some firms have the tech infrastructure to make all this information accessible because they have a great IT guy who helped them go electronic, and others don't."

Architects and designers who specialize in law offices believe that the process of remaking the look and feel of law firms is one filled with much opportunity but also some peril, which is why the discovery sessions are critical at the early stages of the process. When signing a 20-year lease, for instance, it is hard for a firm to plan for technology, which seems to go through an overhaul every five years, or for the future of the law, which might be unrecognizable within a decade, thanks to evolving factors such as tighter budgets, intense competition, demographic shifts, outsourcing, and technology.

Office Design

Venable: Valuing Employee Input

When Venable decided its current space in Chinatown wasn't likely a good fit anymore, the firm began talking to its employees—some 400 attorneys and staff. Obviously, any effort to move would be felt most profoundly by its staff. It was the start of a conversation that continues to this day, as the law firm waits for its new building, also in Chinatown, to be completed in early 2017.

Venable's future home, designed by Alliance Architecture, is only a few blocks away from its current location, but the process of finding the space and designing it has been a collaborative one, with employees involved at every stage. One of the earliest examples of this was the transportation study conducted by the firm to see how moving its offices would impact travel times and commuting routes for drivers and rail and bus passengers.

"We were cognizant of all the concerns. We didn't want to change for the sake of change, but we also didn't want to continue with the status quo for the sake of avoiding disruption," says Bruton. "We did switch buildings, but we didn't switch neighborhoods. We didn't do anything that drastic. With new construction, we knew we would have a blank slate, though, which we viewed as a great opportunity."

And it will be much more than a blank slate. Architect and design sketches of Venable's new Massachusetts Avenue Northwest offices reveal walls of windows and open interior staircases that create a contemporary crispness and an expansive feel that is carried throughout the firm's five full floors. Terraces and a rooftop deck, which showcase the firm's commitment to "green" space, offer attractive vistas of the fashionable neighborhood. The offices also include a concourse space and ground-level reception area.

"I like to design for collisions," says John Warasila, founding principal of Alliance Architecture. "I want to create circulation paths where people will bump into each other and interact with people they don't necessarily see in any given day. There is a different dynamic sitting at a table than meeting at a stand-up, casual place for a quick conversation. Stairs between floors are great places for that, as are destination spaces with great views and access to coffee and food."

Early on, there were discussions about adopting same-size offices, but Bruton says the benefits did not outweigh the impact it would have on the firm's culture and individual partners. "Anytime we move people around it's a space planning issue," Bruton says. "It makes it a lot easier when you're moving folks around to not have to worry about whether you're moving an associate or a partner there. But we realized that culturally you can't take partners who have been in a larger office for 10 or 20 years and put them into smaller offices."

Instead, the firm chose an exterior glass "skin" and interior glass walls to bring light into the workspaces for administrative staff. The design leaves an overall impression of an airy space with sight lines to the neighborhood surrounding the building.

Venable worked to make the office design more flexible and to allow for greater mobility for its millennial associates and administrative staffers who prefer some freedom in where they work. Mindful of the needs of the next generation, there are common areas that are comfortable and collaborative, with wireless access throughout the office.

"There's an understanding that not only do we need to think about the needs of our younger lawyers, but also about the needs of our non-attorney staff, because they are integral to providing Venable's services to our clients," says Bruton.

With its focus on employee well-being, Venable is providing treadmill desks in designated open offices for those who prefer to work that way, for at least an hour or two a day, while also ensuring the desks are located in an area that won't diminish the experience of staff sitting in offices next to them.

Part of the reason the relocation has gone so smoothly up to this point is that Venable has assigned a team composed of a number of people who had helped the law firm move to its current location some 15 years before to assist in the forthcoming move. Regular communications to staff about the changes also have helped ease the process.

In thinking about space, Venable also looked for opportunities to bring the outdoors into the building. A handful of terraces and the rooftop deck not only satisfy green space requirements in the District, but also are a lush and calming refuge for attorneys and administrative staff. The rooftop, which features a bocce court, will allow the firm to continue its annual bocce tournaments in the summer, and the retractable glass exterior walls of the cafeteria, which opens to the rooftop deck, will bring the seasons into the building.

Arnold & Porter: Flexibility and Efficiency

Arnold & Porter, new office

For most law firms, space accounts for its biggest expense besides personnel. Many firms making a move or redesigning their current offices look to capture the timeless and, equally, timeliness in their new spaces. Avoiding the latest fads in design, law firms opt for flexibility and efficiency, even as they seek the glamour and polish that convey the prestige and dignity of the law.

Arnold & Porter LLP's elegant new offices, designed by HYL Architecture, are located in the Mt. Vernon Square neighborhood. The new building sits on one of the District's many popular triangle properties along Massachusetts Avenue Northwest, and the firm occupies 396,258 square feet on 11 floors, or about 85 percent of the building. It has an Emerald City quality to it, with its sharp edges and glass-walled exterior. It's a long way from the first small townhouse on 19th Street where Arnold &Porter got its start.

The interiors of the firm's new home are light, with multiple floors linked by open staircases, and the design emphasis is on facilitating an unimpeded flow from attorney offices to communal spaces. The generously proportioned hallways and stairways give the offices a more welcoming feel, and the glass exterior and interior glass panels and doorways allow for abundant daylight and views of the surrounding city.

When Arnold & Porter first considered relocating, it looked at how to configure space in a manner that would best serve everyone—partners, associates, administrative staff, and, most importantly, clients. While there might have been some who hoped for open office plans, the law firm's project team knew that key decisions about office size and transparent walls would be determined based on firm culture and space needs.

In terms of office size, the firm has established partner- and non-partner-size offices. Like many firms, it debated a single-size office configuration but decided against it, for now.

"We were averse to flukes and fads," says Elizabeth Respess, executive director of Arnold & Porter who oversaw the relocation. "Partners do work differently. They're meeting with people in their offices. It's important to have a little more space to have a table. Down the road, we may decide to change that." The firm has the flexibility to make that change. Partner offices were built in a way that they could be converted to single-size offices if needed.

The conference rooms are concentrated on two floors, so there is a center to the firm's presence in the building. Along with conference rooms, Arnold & Porter added teaming rooms, which are off-the-grid spaces that the staff doesn't have to reserve to use. All in all, the firm achieved a 30 percent savings in its metropolitan area real estate footprint while accommodating nearly 100 additional lawyers at its current location.

"All the points of the building became conference rooms so everyone could use them and share them," says Respess. "We also put our cafeteria, which had been on the third floor in our prior building, on our main law firm floor. It opens up onto a large terrace. Everyone shares the best view of the U.S. Capitol. Its use has really increased because people go up there to sit and talk and have meetings."

Arnold & Porter has shown the same attention to detail in designing its client spaces, with public floors dedicated to serving clients and located away from the confidential work being done on private floors. Working with the landlord and designers, the firm has installed dedicated elevators to transport visitors to its public floors, ensuring that clients can move swiftly to and from their destinations while protecting the confidentiality of the firm's operations.

"They want to have a good client experience, so they have their clients go right up to the 10th floor," says Heath of HYL Architecture, one of the building's office designers. "They are greeted there and have a very accommodating environment. There is guest WiFi and guest offices. The firm has captured the importance of hospitality for clients."

The firm created Attorney Resource Centers to address the daily and ongoing administrative needs of partners and associates. These pods, made up of secretaries and legal resource assistants, are the place attorneys can go to "get things done." The groundwork for this feature had been laid in the firm's previous offices when Arnold & Porter changed its secretarial structure from individual relationships to a team approach.

When the firm moved to its new home, it didn't forget its past. A history wall along the well-traveled path to the cafeteria gives staff and visitors alike a chance to see Arnold & Porter's progression from a small local firm to an international powerhouse. At a later date, the firm plans to add video screens to tell its story.

Additionally, the law firm has transferred most of its impressive art collection to its new space. In fact, the artworks influenced the designers, says Respess, as they looked for a way to incorporate the contemporary art pieces into the firm's new ecosystem. The artworks got a much-needed facelift before they were brought into the building, and pieces that didn't fit into the new space were sold.

Respess notes that one area that truly benefited from the modernity of the new building is the Children's Center, the firm's day care operation. Bright and cheerful with bold primary colors on the walls and in the fabrics, the center is located in the building's concourse level and was designed with natural light, ease of access, and simplicity in mind.

"We expanded our Children's Center. It was one of the best features of our last building, and now we've upgraded it to make it more inviting," says Respess.

Manatt: Collaboration Over Convention

For Manatt, Phelps & Phillips LLP,the notion of elevating community over law firm convention just made sense as it considered relocating its offices from Metro Center to Connecticut Avenue in the Golden Triangle neighborhood. Inclusiveness and collaboration became the primary goals for its new space, and the firm asked its design team at OPX to make collaborative space a premium.

Collaboration Zones"We had come from a more traditional space with many different-size offices when we moved here," says Ivan Wasserman, administrative partner at Manatt's Washington, D.C., office. "We had some very large ones that were not often used because of the nature of the business and people traveling. We had a lot of closed doors that definitely cut off a sense of inclusiveness. If you had an office with a window, that was good. If you didn't or were an administrative person, you never really saw light. It didn't foster teamwork or collaboration."

At the top of the firm's list of new design requirements was adopting single-size offices for partners and associates—a controversial decision for most law firms—but Wasserman says it was made easier by the fact that Manatt has a mix of professionals in the office and isn't exclusively comprised of attorneys.

"In the year and a half we've been here, I haven't heard any issues with the size of the offices," says Wasserman. "The glass front has been more of an adjustment. Attorneys generally are used to shutting the door and not having anybody able to see them working. But there weren't really any problems with the size of the office."

Polo, the managing partner at OPX, says his company pioneered same-size offices in the District with the redesign of Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice LLP's offices in 2011. He says OPX was glad to incorporate single-size offices into the Manatt design as it provides more flexibility. He notes that architects and designers frequently grapple with the reluctance of most law firms in pushing the envelope on tradition.

"As a firm, Manatt has always been pretty forward thinking," says Polo. "They're headquartered in Los Angeles, so they already have a more progressive view of what it is like to run their business. But we recognize that Washington is a different market. Our research suggested that people in different generations acted differently around different requirements in the office, and so we worked to accommodate them."

One such accommodation was giving attorneys many options to work in conference and team rooms. By eliminating boundaries, Manatt hopes to encourage collaboration. Every attorney has a dedicated office, albeit the same size, but there is room for experimentation in terms of working together in teams or across disciplines. Manatt is home to both attorneys and nonlawyer professionals such as business consultants and former Medicare and Medicaid officials.

During the relocation, Wasserman says the company replaced all its furniture and gave everyone sit/stand desks, allowing for a much more streamlined space and diminishing the effect of switching to smaller offices for partners. "Most partners chose standing desks. Anyone who chose a non-standing desk now regrets it. It's not only fun to push it up and down, but all the science is showing that sitting is the new smoking," adds Wasserman.

The inviting conference room at Manatt's new offices hugs the building's atrium, a massive multistory structure with dramatic glass exterior walls. The soaring conference space is a commons of sorts, with a flexible floor plan and tables and chairs on wheels for easy reconfiguration for various events and meetings. Wasserman sees it as a meeting place for both staff and visitors, serving as a venue for a number of events and continuing legal education sessions.

The reason why extensive discovery sessions and space assessments are needed early on is to seamlessly incorporate elements of collaboration, in effect making it an organic process. "If our No. 1 criteria is building teamwork in practice groups, then you put the practice groups together in their own area. If the strategy were to cross-sell our practice groups and build collegiality, then we'd want to disperse practice groups. If you don't know your strategy, then you get what you get," says Polo.

Because Manatt's offices tend to be smaller (42,403 square feet, less than many of the mammoth law firms in the District), the firm uses its conference and team rooms more frequently. With 65 attorneys and other professionals and another 38 staff, Manatt is smaller than most mega firms and has more freedom to configure its space and work across disciplines. In fact, many of its consultants are enjoying even more collaborative workspaces after Manatt decided to adopt a quad desk system for them.

"Law firms can often work in silos," says Wasserman. "I'm hoping that seeing a consulting operation working nicely together and in a collaborative way will trigger and encourage more teamwork and collaboration among the lawyers."

Connected and, Soon, Paperless

Technology is the great unknown in law office redesigns. Ten years ago, office futurists might have predicted some of today's technology tools and toys, but it's hard to imagine they would have forecast the near demise of the law firm library. Technology has allowed for the diffusion of resources throughout the office, and most firms, even large ones, are foregoing traditional libraries for either scattered library nooks or desktop access to resources. No wonder today's law firms are challenged in realistically planning up to 20 years out in terms of office lease space and equipment purchase to keep pace with tech changes.

Meanwhile, tech-enabled mobility is gaining ground among firms. It requires firms to balance the needs of building a strong tech infrastructure in the office and providing employees the flexibility to leave the office. This has been especially difficult in developing long-term strategies for in-office and out-of-office mobility that respect confidentiality but allow for greater freedom. And even when mobility is a consideration in upgrading technology during office redesigns and relocations, it is not equally shared but generally aimed at attorneys rather than non-legal staff.

Some law firms take a practical approach to technology and connectivity. Venable has worked to reduce paper not only to save space in terms of document storage, but also to be mindful of tech advances toward a paperless law office. Some partners may use two computers to toggle between documents rather than printing something out. Others may be more comfortable with laptops and a moveable feast of work. Venable also is employing a clever innovation around technology with its decision to create an Apple-like "genius bar" on every floor, giving staff members access to IT help when they need it.

"The big challenge for a lot of the firms, especially with the older stock of buildings, is they have those deeper floor plates," says Amolsch of Gensler. "They were designed to house all the bodies and the paper that came with these firms. Now the paper is disappearing. Even the libraries are shrinking or being decentralized. The need for the interior space is being replaced by technology."

Much of the technological change has come in the area of communications. For Manatt, being a satellite office means that video conferencing is an essential element of getting work done on a daily basis. "We are wired throughout our offices for video conferencing," says Wasserman. "It was important that we have the latest technology with respect to video conferencing, and we upped our commitment to that technology to ensure we didn't have a break in service."

Not all redesign efforts lead to favorable outcomes, of course, and sometimes those problems arise around incorporating technology in the office. Choosing the wrong hardware, software, or communications system can cause headaches and reduce productivity. More importantly, a poorly chosen system designed to last at least five years can turn into a lemon tree that needs constant maintenance if not replacement. In this sense, technology remains the wildcard in office design.

Beyond Space, Redesigning Relationships

Not surprisingly, what is happening today in law office design reflects macro trends in society. Individuals are choosing technology, mobility, and community, while gradually letting go of the customs—both personal and professional—that have long kept them tethered to bricks-and-mortar structures and traditional career paths.

"There's this irony that there's so much we're doing alone because of our experience with our cell phones," says Warasila of Alliance Architecture, the architect of the Bar's new building. "In design, we're trying to create spaces that drive people together and make an office that is so mobile it enables you to go anywhere. We have to consciously almost overproduce for social connection because we as a society are using technologies that separate us from each other."

And if all this seems like catering too much to the free-spirited millennials, designers argue that it is necessary for law firms to embrace, even if only slowly, the new model for law offices. They also should consider embracing the changes coming in the unspoken covenant that guides relations between employers and employees. That's why architectural ethnographers believe that millennials' passion for downsizing, reduced ownership, and collective action is permanently shaping office design.

David Owen, a principal at OPX, believes law firms are on the cusp of redesigning how they address their real estate matters, which will trigger a change in how they work. Today real estate decisions are made based on a certain delivery system for clients and employees. Office space equals access, and clients and employees alike are comfortable with this tradition. If that were to change with the help of technology and new workplace options, what would the law office of the future look like?

"Ultimately, technology allows you to stay connected in other ways than being physically together," says Owen. "I don't know if every business will be able to function in this new environment, but I think there are people who will make that freedom to connect part of their deal with the firm. Maybe someone works from home and doesn't have an assigned office, or someone else goes to a co-working space. There are many options."

Heath of HYL Architecture envisions an even more dramatic transformation in the way law offices manage their space-versus-attorney equation. Already, the practice of having an assigned secretary to a partner has morphed into one where a team of administrative assistants serves a group of partners. It's likely that the advent of office mobility, contract attorneys, and outsourcing will do even more to transform the conventions of office design and protocol.

"If firms are smart, they're going to find something else or some way else to reward their partners," says Heath. "In the past, the size of your office was a visual acknowledgement that you had made it to that level of importance in the firm. What else do law firms have to visually show that beyond a dedicated secretary and a large corner office? It's a question for firms as they design their future offices."

And that may not be so very far into the future. Law offices have long been a physical manifestation of the rules and standards of conduct of the legal profession. As those conventions change, the physical space of law offices will reflect that evolution. How fast change happens and how far it goes will depend on each firm's ability to transcend the past in light of a dawning future.

Sarah Kellogg is a regular contributor to Washington Lawyer.