A year ago, when Jeff Lesk was just starting to brainstorm about where to relocate his law firm come 2015, the first thing he did was sit down with a handful of colleagues and a real estate broker to look at a map of the 100 biggest law firms in the city.
“We wanted to get a feel for ... is there a neighborhood law firms have to be in, to make a statement,” said Lesk, managing partner of Nixon Peabody’s Washington office. “The answer, which wasn’t a surprise, was, ‘All over the place.’ There’s no tendency to have law firms congregate at the courthouse, or the White House, or the Hill. Literally, law firms are all over the city.”
They then pulled together a map of where every single attorney and employee in Nixon Peabody’s D.C. office lives — about 170 in total — to see if they tended to cluster in certain neighborhoods that might be a convenient spot for a new office.
“All over the map.”
The firm eventually whittled down a list of 23 potential buildings to one, 799 Ninth St. NW, a 1o-story building adjacent to CityCenterDC, and signed a 15-year lease to occupy three floors of the Brookfield-owned property that is four blocks north of the firm’s current Penn Quarter digs.
The decision marked the culmination of a yearlong process that offered a glimpse into what happens behind the scenes when big law firms such as Nixon Peabody — highly coveted tenants because of their large employee head count, need for significant real estate and relative financial stability — think about moving.
Lesk and his team studied Metro and driving access for each potential space, and surveyed their employees about what was important to them in a workspace. They closely studied a matrix of which other law firms in town had leases expiring, and when.
“A huge number of law firm leases are expiring in 2016 and 2017,” Lesk said. “We expect there to be more competition for space, and therefore it’d be more expensive if we moved in 2016 or 2017. We thought this was a good time to get into the marketplace and make the deal. You have to look at what space is available and match it with your time frame.”
When the firm got down to the final four potential buildings, Lesk personally led partners and associates on walking tours at each property. He and his colleagues are now working with architects at Perkins + Will to design the new space, which will be 30 percent smaller than the firm’s current office, and scoping out other offices around the city for ideas, including the U.S. Green Building Council headquarters and the new NPR building.
Lesk is something of an urban development geek himself, with a strong personal and professional interest in what the future of Washington will look like, and where his law firm fits into that picture. His law practice is centered around representing banks and other corporate investors in putting together deals that finance affordable housing and other community development projects. Nixon Peabody did much of the legal work behind piecing together tax credits to finance the redevelopment of the Atlas and Howard theaters in the District, a mixed-used development at Navy Yard and a charter school in Anacostia. The firm’s work in tax credit finance law is part of what sets it apart from other firms in the city.
Lesk pushed the firm to consider what he called “outlier” locations in Rosslyn, Southeast D.C. near the ballpark and NoMa north of Union Station — neighborhoods that today are not conventional real estate hubs for corporate law firms.
“I was willing to consider everything,” Lesk said. “When we last moved 15 years ago, there was resistance in moving from Foggy Bottom to this developing area in the East End. Some people were afraid, they said, ‘It’s new and funky, is it safe?’
“I have faith in those neighborhoods, that’s where the next generation will be,” Lesk said of Southeast and NoMa. “But there are not yet enough amenities for what our staff would like.”
Lesk said the location of the new space is symbolic of how the firm sees itself.
“In one respect, we face City Center, where you’ve got brand new buildings,” he said. “It’s the most expensive space in D.C. right now. In another respect, we’re two blocks from the Chinatown gate and Calvary Church, the older urban fabric that’s more historical. I love being part of that intersection and I see us that way as a firm — connecting with the heart of the economic center, but we’ve also done many projects in areas that are revitalizing and redeveloping.”