Washington law firms rush to go green


(Jeffrey MacMillan)
November 6, 2011

Gone are the 300-square-foot partner offices and oak floors. In are bamboo cabinets, recycled Terrazzo floors and conference rooms that stream in natural light.

Squire Sanders & Dempsey — the international law firm whose Washington office relocated in August to the central business district after 30 years near the White House — hopes the new features will be enough to earn the highest rating for green construction and design, known as LEED platinum.

The designation is an outgrowth from the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design sytem that measures a building’s square footage, energy efficiency, amount of natural light, whether materials are locally sourced and come from fast-growing or recycled materials.

The building itself, at 1200 19th St. NW, already has been certified LEED platinum; the firm, whose 62 Washington attorneys take up two floors of the 11-story property, will seek platinum certification for the office interior next year.

Squire Sanders is the latest in a slew of top 100 firms in the District that have completed recent moves, or are planning to relocate next year, to new or refurbished LEED-certified properties. Vinson & Elkins and Hunton & Williams moved in June and July, respectively, both to 2200 Pennsylvania Ave. NW at Washington Circle. Arent Fox is heading to the Pei Cobb Freed & Partners building at Connecticut and K; Holland & Knight to PNC Place at 17th and H; and McDermott Will & Emery to North Capitol and E Street in what will, upon completion, be called the McDermott Building. Most law firms are the lead tenants at gold or platinum LEED properties.


The view from Squire Sanders & Dempsey’s new office, which it hopes will get LEED platinum certification. (Jeffrey MacMillan/For Capital Business)

The greening of law firms is not a new phenomenon. Firms for years have been incorporating sustainability practices in their operations (according to a CB Richard Ellis report issued in late 2010, about half of the Am Law 100 firms have some type of environmental program, and 11 of the 100 have achieved or are seeking LEED certification). But the burst of recent movement in the District reflects a unique confluence of forces at play in Washington, lawyers and LEED experts said.

Consider:

Washington has by far the highest number of lawyers per capita out of any state — 277 per 10,000 residents (the next highest is New York, with 20 lawyers per 10,000 residents), according to the AveryIndex.

Washington is among a handful of cities including Boston, New York, San Francisco and Chicago leading the LEED movement. The District ranks second among U.S. cities for number of LEED projects, according to the U.S. Green Building Council, which sets the standards for LEED certification. In 2009, the city began requiring all new construction or major renovations to nonresidential private buildings of least 50,000 square feet to submit a building checklist outlining green features.

Major law firms are viewed by property owners as stable tenants, thus often becoming anchor tenants of large buildings.

The result is an unusually high number of new LEED buildings in the District that house, or plan to house, law firms, said Roger Platt, senior vice president for global policy at the U.S. Green Building Council.

“If you look at lots of big buildings built recently, you’ll see it’s the new home of ‘X’ gigantic law firm,” Platt said. “In Washington, even if there was less government, there will always be more lawyers. As a result, law firms are viewed as very good tenants. They anchor the properties, become the tenant that has three of the 12 floors and ensure the building is going to attract other good tenants as well.”

In some cases, such as at 2200 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, two major law firms occupy the majority of the space: Vinson & Elkins and Hunton & Williams together take up about 60 percent of the property’s 440,000 square feet of rentable office space. Arent Fox will occupy seven of the new building’s 12 floors, McDermott seven out of nine floors, and Holland & Knight five out of 12 floors.

“In the last five years or so, we’ve seen a significant interest among class A office buildings and in those cities, law firms are stalwart tenants in those buildings,” Platt said.

For law firms, committing to stricter environmental standards is both an ethical and business-driven decision.

Squire Sanders’ new 63,000-square-foot space is about two-thirds the size of its old office. With less space and more energy efficient electrical systems, the firm is paying $2 to $3 less per rentable square foot, said John Burlingame, the firm’s managing partner.

“We felt commitment to the environment and doing what we could was the right thing to do,” he said. “We also recognize that increasingly, businesses themselves are concerned with efficiency and being environmentally friendly.”

Asking for a building’s LEED specs is becoming a standard industry practice for law firms scouting new office space.

“It’s becoming a competitive issue,” said Bobby Burchfield, co-partner in charge of McDermott’s Washington office, which is moving to a LEED gold building in fall 2012. “To some degree, it’s like advertising — you can never really prove a particular newspaper ad generates ‘X’ amount of business, but if you don’t do it, you’re at a competitive disadvantage.”

Catherine Ho covers law and lobbying for the Capital Business section of The Washington Post. She previously worked at the LA Daily Journal, the Los Angeles Times, the Detroit Free Press, the Wichita Eagle and the San Mateo County Times.
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