Paul Thompson, managing partner of D.C. office of McDermott Will & Emery. (Jeffrey MacMillan/For The Washington Post)

“Meet me at Judiciary Square” used to cause a bit of confusion at McDermott Will & Emery.

The law firm’s old office in downtown Washington named its meeting rooms after D.C. Metro stops and, as the joke goes, young newbie attorneys would scratch their heads for a moment before realizing that probably meant the room, not the Metro station.

It’s a story that Paul Thompson, the partner in charge of McDermott’s Washington office, likes to tell, because since moving to new office space in Capitol Hill last year, the firm now takes a more international approach to room-naming. Conference spaces are now labeled “Boston,” “Brussels,” “California,” “China” and other locales around the world where the law firm has offices.

It may seem like a minor detail, but at a law firm, nothing happens by accident. McDermott created a committee to judge a room-naming contest, which garnered some unexpected suggestions — including names of former Washington football quarterbacks — in part to drum up excitement about the new space, which McDermott leaders see as a key part of the firm’s branding efforts in Washington.

“When you look at law firms in the city, there’s not a lot on the surface that distinguishes them,” Thompson said. “They’re big, they have a lot of practice groups, they have a lot of lawyers. Any opportunity to make yourself distinctive matters, not only to your clients but in the community.”

In that vein, McDermott chose Capitol Hill, a neighborhood that is not nearly as crowded with law firms as the central business district or the East End. McDermott, which has about 450 lawyers and staff in Washington, is the first business to lease the space in years; it was previously occupied by the Internal Revenue Service and the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Image matters

There was a time law firms were so profitable that they thought little about branding. But now, with the 2008 recession continuing to flatten revenue at many of the nation’s oldest and largest law firms, most leaders at large firms agree that time has passed. These days, business is tight, and even something like real estate can send a message about the image a firm wants to project to any potential business that comes through its doors — executives, trade association leaders, academics, members of Congress, all of whom have cycled through the McDermott building over the past year for events.

About 9,000 visitors have flocked to the office for the more than 100 events the firm has hosted since last year, including book-speaking engagements for Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt and retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) and Carol Browner, President Obama’s former energy czar, came by last month for an American University Law event about climate change. The firm regularly invites corporate clients to hold board meetings at its offices, and it hosts receptions for trade associations on days that their members lobby on the Hill. The firm does not charge for the use of its space, but Thompson said it pays off in other ways.

“All of these are opportunities to brand us as someone in the community that folks think about when they think about discourse, legal ideas, policy ideas,” he said. “It’s an opportunity to bring people in who might not otherwise come to our space, get to know a little more about us, to have good thoughts about McDermott and what we do.”

The firm’s previous office near Metro Center was not nearly as equipped to host large-scale community events, Thompson said.

“If we wanted to get more than 30 people together at our old space, we had to go to the basement,” he said. “We had one long room and if you were speaking at an event, it was like a tunnel. Someone would be a mile down at the end of the room.”

The firm has a smaller physical footprint now, having downgraded from 189,000 to 165,000 square feet, and is paying “substantially” less — though Thompson declined to specify exactly how much less.

How real estate fits into a larger branding strategy is an issue that law firms here are slated to grapple with for years to come. More top 100 law firms in Washington have leases expiring in 2015, 2016 and 2017 than any other year between now and 2026. Almost all are downsizing.

“I like to say we traded in an old Camry for a new Mercedes, and the Mercedes is cheaper,” Thompson said. “You want [clients] to know you’re being good stewards, that you’re not being reckless and extravagant.”