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A New Look for Legal: A Bold Vision for the Law Firm of the Future

Expansive corner offices, hierarchy-based seating arrangements, an abundance of paperwork, and some mahogany for good measure: This is the law firm we know from TV.

But what do today’s actual law firms look like, and how is law changing? Though the industry has been a bit slow to embrace the “Workplace of the Future” movement, law is inching its way closer to more progressive workspaces that reflect how work is shifting across all industries—the rise of teamwork and a greater importance placed on a shared company culture.

We were fortunate enough to partner with one such firm that understood how workplace design could signal significant change. Nixon Peabody, a global law practice with 16 offices in major cities, recently undertook a comprehensive firmwide rebranding effort. Following that, the Washington, D.C. office enlisted our team to re-design its space with two goals in mind: shrinking their overall footprint by reducing the size of private offices, as well as support functions; and creating a space that embodies their sustainability and social responsibility values and goals.

The result is a law firm that breaks the timeworn mold and presents a fresh vision. The project’s design principal, Ken Wilson, sat down with us to discuss the project’s goals and outcomes.

In general, how is law changing, and how can the workplace respond to these changes?

The practice of law has changed significantly since the Great Recession.  Law firms are dealing with many of the same issues that other professional service firms are facing: They are feeling the squeeze financially with fee competition; they are struggling to differentiate themselves from their competitors; and technology is challenging the way they work.  Law firms are also being influenced by their clients, and they are just now starting to adopt ideas about the workspace that have been around in corporate America for quite a while.

As a result, law firm space is get getting significantly smaller.  Law libraries are all but obsolete because everything is available online, records departments are being digitized, and attorneys are giving up their big offices.  All of this allowed Nixon Peabody to reduce their real estate requirement by 30%.  That is a huge savings.

What was the client’s involvement in this project? How was their vision translated into the space?

Nixon Peabody was a terrific client and very open-minded.  Many law firms focus too much on what their competitors are doing instead of thinking about what is best for their own practice.  During the programming phase, Nixon’s Managing Partner, Jeff Lesk, noted that he could not point to any example out there that represented where they wanted to be, and for us to be successful, we would have to create something that was completely different.

In helping them define the vision for who they were as a firm, a number of descriptions emerged.  They saw themselves as forward thinking in that they embraced technology, sustainability, equity, human wellbeing, and the benefits of collaboration.  The also saw themselves as agile, authentic and having integrity, and they thought of their practice as a craft.  These ideas became a wonderful guide for the design.

NixonPeabody_tour Nixon Peabody's Managing Partner, Jeff Lesk (center), along with principal Ken Wilson (right) tour Perkins+Will colleagues around the new office.

What did the reduction of rentable square feet entail? In particular, how was space from the perimeter offices re-allocated?

Nixon’s previous space was 92,000 RSF, and our initial programming effort got them down to 75,000 RSF.  After test fitting six potential sites, they selected a building where they fit on three and a half floors.  Then they came back and challenged us to get them on just three floors which meant being even more efficient.

Together with Nixon, we took a harder look at the library, records department, and support areas.  We had already made the move to same-size offices for all the attorneys.  We made it work with a surprising amount of common space on the window line such as a large staff café and collaboration area.  This would never have been achieved without making the move to smaller perimeter offices.  Additionally, the internal connecting stair is on the window line, which allowed us to have three story living wall.  The stairwell also acts as a light well and brings natural light deeper into the space.

Nixon Peabody DC (69) Within Nixon Peabody's game-changing workspace. Photographer: Eric Laignel

How does this office re-imagine the cushy corner office?

There are no corner offices, which is probably the most progressive thing about the design.  All those corner offices – and in this building there was the potential for five on each floor – are now meeting rooms or are given to the staff café.

10 - Nixon Peabody DC (148) Corner office? No, corner space for team collaboration. Photographer: Eric Laignel

What is Nixon Peabody’s position on sustainability, and how does the new workplace reflect that?

Nixon Peabody is a strong supporter of sustainable design.  The project is seeking LEED-CI Platinum certification (final certification pending) and meets the aggressive energy reductions set by the AIA’s 2030 challenge, which says a lot about their commitment.  The penetration of natural light throughout the space is enabled by the extensive use of glass walls and an automated system that raises the window shades when there is no direct sun or it is a cloudy day.  They are even installing photovoltaic panels on the roof.

5 - Nixon Peabody DC (60) A living wall stretches across multiple floors of the space. Photographer: Eric Laignel

How does the workplace express the client’s commitment to social responsibility and wellbeing?

Energy produced by the photovoltaic panels that Nixon Peabody is installing on the roof of their building will be in shared with a local low-income housing project. The office houses a gallery that will showcase the work of local artists. Its first exhibit is from a Washington, D.C., program called Critical Exposure, which trains youth to use photography and advocacy to make real change in their schools and communities. The area rug in the reception area was hand-woven by women in Afghanistan as part of an empowerment program run by Arzu Studio of Hope.

Regarding wellbeing, our material and furniture selections were vetted for harmful chemicals, and the living wall naturally filters the air.  The transparency of the space provides ample natural light and allows over 90% of the workspaces to have line-of-sight views to the outside.  Active design is promoted through several strategies including a centrally located open stair that connects all three floors of the space, a singular staff café which entices employees to get up from their desks to get a freshly made double espresso, and sit/stand desks.

Thanks, Ken!