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The Law Firm as Socialist Fishbowl

Vivia Chen

June 14, 2010

Fotolia_3911498_XS Would you ever reject a job offer because the decor of the law firm wasn't up to snuff? Would you think twice about joining a firm where the partner's office was as dinky as that of a lowly associate?

Those are silly questions, right? For any sensible lawyer, money, prestige, and interesting work would trump anything as superficial as interior design.

But not so fast. Some lateral partner recruits, it turns out, are balking about joining firms with progressive, democratic designs, according to a recent article in the ABA Journal.

Seyfarth Shaw, for instance, has created a mini revolution in the legal world by assigning offices with the same square footage to both partners and associates. Yet the firm had to carve out an exception to this grand design for its office in New York, where the big-partner office is still sacrosanct. "There was a problem with recruitment, having laterals come over" to work in an associate-size office, explained Seyfarth partner Carl Russo to the ABA.

It's hardly surprising that partners might take offense at this democratic design scheme. My hunch, though, is that associates probably applaud it. In a profession known for its rigid caste system, it's a breath of fresh air to have at least a semblance of equality in the workplace.

Still, there are some design trends that lawyers of all ranks might dislike. One is the "transparent" office, where glass has replaced those nice solid walls covered with those reassuring Currier & Ives prints. At some offices (Seyfarth; Morgan Lewis & Bockius; and Orrick were some of the firms the ABA Journal cites), there's so much transparency that you'd have to duck under your desk for a moment of privacy.

2010Orrick2_00023 "With offices on both sides [of hallways], it creates a much more vibrant atmosphere," Orrick partner Peter Bicks told the ABA. "Partners are sitting right by associates with complete, open lines of sight. One of the goals is to encourage a more collaborative atmosphere."

"Collaborative" is the big buzzword in corporate design these days. But what Bicks might regard as collaborative might strike associates as intrusive and oppressive. Just try surfing eBay for vintage jewelry on your lunch break when you're under the watchful gaze of a partner.

But the flip side is that you can stare right back at that partner and make him feel uncomfortable, too. One Seyfarth partner likes to nap, and now he has an audience. "He takes naps in his office; he turns the lights out at night. Everybody can see him," Seyfarth partner Russo told the ABA.

Like it or not, designers see the trend toward a more open and nonhierarchical law firm as inevitable. Part of this is driven by cost. Another factor, says the ABA, is the advent of alternative billing and the emphasis on efficiency. The conceit of this new type of office is that firms are moving toward a teamwork model.

Right now, partners still hog the kind of square footage that would be unthinkable in much of the corporate world. Architect Todd DeGarmo told the ABA: "Corporate America spent years engineering those costs out of their system. There's a lot more emphasis on how to make people effective than how to reward them with space." Currently, the ABA states that a typical associate office occupies 125-150 square feet--a common size in the corporate sector. But a partner's office is usually 200-250 square feet, which, DeGarmo added, "almost doesn't exist anywhere else anymore."

What all this means is that the days of the luxe partner office with the comfy leather sofa and the marble coffee table is as doomed for extinction as the executive washroom. Still, I have a feeling that some lawyers will hold out until the peasants storm the firm. In Manhattan, where personal and professional success is measured by the ability to inch up the real estate chain (from a shared office to a single one to one with a view), the idea of starting and ending with the same square footage won't cut it.

What is the point of enduring those long hours if there's no upgrade? But then, this is more about style than substance. Does anybody really believe law firms are getting more democratic? 

f you have topics you'd like to discuss, or information to share for The Careerist, e-mail chief blogger Vivia Chen at VChen@alm.com.

Top photo: Monika Wisniewska/Fotolia

Bottom photo: Ben Rosenzweig/ courtesy of Orrick


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I would rather work in a 4' x 8' broom closet than in an office with glass walls, no matter how big it is.

If I were a client bringing substantial business to a firm, I would like the partner-in-charge to have a nicer office than the first year associates.

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About The Careerist

The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: VChen@alm.com

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