At Holland & Knight, lobbyists no longer have corner offices

September 16, 2012

Last summer, Holland & Knight’s lead lobbyist Rich Gold unveiled a plan to the law firm’s senior partners for how he wanted to design the firm’s new D.C. office. He was met with a roomful of gasps.

Gold’s vision for the office space at PNC Place at 800 17th St. NW, which the firm moved into in August, was a major departure from the way law firms have traditionally been laid out. It called for scrapping big corner offices for longtime partners, and replacing them with uniform cubicles with no regard for seniority — which also meant no full-length walls separating workers, less privacy and a visual of everyone in the office.

The idea was to create a more egalitarian work space, and move away from the structural hierarchy that has long dictated the allocation of space inside law firms. But some senior partners thought it absurd not to have a bigger office with better views than an associate; some associates questioned the perks of making partner if not to upgrade to a cushier office.

“In a lot of people’s heads, that [design] works for Google, but not a law firm,” Gold said of the reaction from some lawyers. “It was like, ‘Don’t make me do that.’”

The original plan was radical, Gold acknowledges, and intended to invite pushback from colleagues. An 18-month back-and-forth ensued, including 200 interviews with employees in the D.C. office to seek feedback on what they wanted their new work space to look like.

Eventually, the 10th floor, which houses the firm’s 55-member lobbying and public policy group, became home to a slew of new features that blend the look, function and feel of Silicon Valley start-ups with hotel and airport lounges.

Offices are 10-by-12-foot cubes of floor-to-ceiling glass. Top earners and younger consultants have the same size office. And instead of situating each secretary’s desk outside the office of the lawyer they work with, all the secretaries sit in U- and C-shaped clusters at the center of the office, within eye sight and earshot of one another.

Seven themed communal areas known as “neighborhoods” are meant to encourage interaction among colleagues. The conference room is the “Bat Cave,” and its walls are essentially giant white boards that can be written on, then wiped clean. A cantina, modeled after the Mos Eisley Cantina in “Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope,” has Wii and foosball, and will soon have a treadmill with a built-in laptop.

Gold worked closely with then-Gensler designer David Chason, who now runs his own design firm in Miami. Chason has specialized in designing law firms for 20 years, and over the past decade has worked with Holland & Knight to construct offices around the country.

“This is their most unique location,” Chason said. “In particular, that 10th floor we have not done anywhere else yet. It was somewhat of a prototype ... we sat down with Rich and his group to understand their business goals, how they wanted to reinvent themselves or present themselves to Washington.”

The physical changes to the office are symbolic of a larger push to modernize the way the firm does public policy work, Gold said. Earlier this year, Holland & Knight’s public policy group became the first lobbying practice of a national law firm to radically alter the way they bill clients. Instead of billing by the hour, which is industry practice at most large law firms, lobbyists started charging clients a fixed fee.

Independent lobbying shops have long charged clients using fixed fees, and it has helped them recruit lobbyists coming off the Hill who aren’t used to tracking their workday in six-, 12- or 15-minute intervals.

“We’ve integrated our space to the way our practice is going,” Gold said. “Space is a building block. We’re trying to be where lobbying and advocacy ought to be going.”

By that, he also means a renewed focus on teamwork. At the firm’s previous location at 21st and Pennsylvania Ave. NW, the lobbying group was split between two floors. In the new space, the entire group is on the same floor, and they’re encouraged to hold meetings in the “neighborhoods” rather than inside their offices.

“The difference is how many contact points do you have a day with your colleagues?” Gold said. “How often do you talk to your co-workers? We have 10 times more contact in a more open space than a traditional space. It’s that collision of atoms that produces creativity ... How do you design space to produce that outcome?”

Catherine Ho covers law and lobbying for Capital Business, which she joined in 2011. She was previously a reporter at the Daily Journal in Los Angeles, covering LA civil courts and labor and employment law.
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