From the moment Jeff Costellia first joined a big firm after graduating from law school, he had one destination in mind: the corner office.
It wasn’t just the palatial space, the private conference table, the windows and light and the nice view. The corner office was a marker of achievement, a physical symbol of your status at the very top of a competitive hierarchy that you’d spent years working to climb.
“Having a corner office was huge. It meant you’d made it,” Costellia said, looking around the bare walls of his corner office at the Washington law offices of Nixon Peabody, where he is a partner and heads the Intellectual Property group. He smiled wistfully and returned to stacking the last of his files into packing crates.
The firm is moving from its more traditional formal office — heavy on the marble, big desks and other markers of status — to an airy and open one designed not for baby boomers like Costellia, 51, but with up-and-coming millennials in mind. And no one will have a corner office anymore.
“The physical spaces in most law firms tend to be built for prestige. This is really an opportunity to turn that on its head,” said Jeffrey Lesk, 61, managing partner of the D.C. office overseeing the move. “Law firm leases typically go for 15 years. When you think ahead, it becomes really clear really quickly that the vast majority of people now in the law office won’t be here in
15 years. So we had to think, ‘Who are we building for?’ ”
In the new space, all offices — for the junior associates and paralegals as well as senior partners — will be the same size. No one gets a conference table. Everyone has one guest chair. All offices will have glass walls in front, rather than a solid wall and door — the better to share the light throughout the office and the more to signal transparency, democracy and connection. Corner spaces, no longer symbols of individual power, are designed as team meeting rooms for group collaboration — something millennials, those roughly between the ages of 18 and 34, have been taught to do since elementary school.
The emphasis on millennials there, just five blocks north of the old Ninth Street NW space near the FBI, but light years away in style and feel, reflects the young, tech-savvy and self-confident generation’s growing power in reshaping the culture of the workplace and, now, the very design of the office.
“Several years ago, the attitude of law-firm partners was, ‘Millennials are going to have to be like us.’ But very quickly, they learned, they’re not going to be like us. And we need to adapt,” said Nixon Peabody chief executive Andrew Glincher. “We need to be open to new ideas and keenly aware of what motivates millennials. Especially if we want to attract and retain top talent.”
The new office is not quite like those in Silicon Valley, where high-tech firms pioneered the reengineered office. There are no climbing walls or ping-pong tables. But the new design is a first for a big law firm, the likes of which, since the dawn of the Industrial Age, have tended to stick to staid, conservative floor plans — partners in the big offices with windows along the perimeter, juniors in smaller interior offices and rows of cubicles for secretaries — that created an aura of mystery, privacy and importance.
Instead of a hushed grand lobby, visitors to the new office are greeted by a living green wall fed by the condensation from the air conditioning system; wood floors; an open staircase; and a cafe right off the reception area with a big maple farm table, sleek 1950s-era funky furniture and espresso machines.
All are nods to millennials’ preference for sustainability — the new office will also be powered by solar panels — social connection and healthy living. Attorneys were all given the choice to have adjustable standing desks instead of the traditional grand office desk. The space includes both cozy nooks good for curling up with a laptop and informal places to run into colleagues. And instead of what some called a “sad closet,” new mothers will have a well-
appointed Wellness Room to pump breast milk, featuring cushy chairs and a small refrigerator.
With millennials’ desire to do good in the world, a new video wall will be programmed to play stories of how the work of the firm helps make the world a better place, particularly through financing community development projects.
Surveys show that millennials, now the largest living generation, want not hierarchy but “holocracy” — a flatter power structure where their voices will be heard, where they’ll have easier access to those at the top, where they’ll be able to take on challenges and grow from the start, rather than waiting and “paying dues” as most baby boomers and Generation X workers have had to.
They want flexibility in where, when and how they work. They want more work-life balance. They want alternative routes to get to the top, and they want to redefine what being on top means.
“Millennials are called the selfish generation. But I feel if I can make a difference, I want to make a difference,” said Cody Rogers, 29, a second-year associate attorney who works on financing community development projects in struggling communities.
“The idea that I’m pushed to grow and excel. That I’m learning a craft, an art. That I’m making an impact. That’s success to me,” he added. “Everything else — money, a corner office — is tangential.”
More than anything, surveys show that millennials want to feel that they have a purpose and are part of something bigger with a positive impact. If they don’t get all that in one organization, surveys show — and many business leaders fear — they’ll walk.
That’s why, at the firm level, Glincher has begun including everyone, not just partners, in annual meetings. And it’s why D.C. managing partner Lesk included attorneys, paralegals and receptionists on the design committee. The ideas of the young carried the day.
“Let’s face it, millennials do move around a lot, that is in their collective DNA,” Lesk said. “So we have to recognize that, but at the same time redouble our efforts to make this the place they want to come to, and want to stay. And the physical space: Have the atmosphere that they enjoy, are captivated and energized by — that is part of our business plan.”
When Lesk presented the plans for the new space, some senior partners resisted the loss of their hard-won corner offices. “We had to have several conversations about what defines a partner,” Lesk said. “It’s your client base, client development, your work, your mentoring, your thought leadership that defines you. Not your physical space.”
But what finally won many skeptics over, he said, was the economic argument. Law firms, like everyone else, were hit by the 2008 financial crisis. They’ve had to restructure the way they do business and become more transparent about how they bill newly cost-conscious clients. The new office is about one-third smaller than the old office, so real estate costs are lower. And with everyone’s office the same size, promoting someone to partner, or bringing in a partner from somewhere else, won’t result in disruptive office moves to get everyone into the size of office that matches their status.
Greg Doran, 43, a Gen X partner, has a number of young millennial men and women in the Tax Credit Finance and Syndication practice he leads. And their hunger for work-life balance in a hard-charging, 24/7 law firm is undeniable, he said.
“The first thing people often think of with millennials is their sense of entitlement,” he said. “Everyone has to work hard and sacrifice here. Nothing is served on a silver platter. But we can’t just ignore this generation’s needs. We can’t just tell them they’re wrong. There are some real, legitimate concerns this generation has. We need to listen, understand and manage in a way that’s healthy for all generations.”
In fact, research has found that what millennials say they want is really what workers from all generations want. “It’s just that millennials have given voice to it,” said Janet Pogue McLaurin, who studies workplace design around the globe for Gensler, one of the largest architectural and design firms in the world.
“I think we all want the ability to make a difference. We all want choice and control in where and how we work; that’s critical to people’s satisfaction and engagement,” McLaurin said.
And in an increasingly mobile technology-driven world, she said, where people can work from home, or a coffee shop, designing a workspace where people want to be, she said, becomes critical: “Space really matters.”
As he carefully stacked his bubble-wrapped diplomas, senior partner Costellia reflected that the “forced hierarchy” and the prestige associated with his corner office was really a mixed blessing. “I like to be in a place with more equality — I like to feel that way and be treated that way,” he said. “To me, being a leader is not about deference to me, but taking a position and seeing it through. I don’t think I need a particular size of office to do that.”
Taking a break from packing up their offices in the old space on a recent day, a group of young millennial attorneys sat at a conference table with Lesk. The heavy chairs and tables were labeled with the charities where they were destined to be donated. The group buzzed about the common spaces in the new office, how they’ll be able to walk around with laptops, how it feels “elegant and classy,” yet informal and welcoming, and how people won’t be able to judge each other by the size of their offices anymore.
“Without corner offices it feels, not egalitarian necessarily, but like everyone’s in it together,” said Paige Gentry, 29, a second-year associate attorney.
To Emily Feder Trentman, 28, a first-year attorney just out of law school, what matters most to her is how the space is designed to foster more interaction between younger attorneys and more senior partners. “I don’t see this as about equality. I am clearly subordinate to the partners,” she said. “They have years of experience and knowledge. But I want to be able to learn from them. Having access to them is what’s important to me.”
Lesk shook his head and laughed. “When I was your age, I could not walk into a partner’s office. You had to make an appointment. It was like entering an inner sanctum,” he said.
“That’s what we’re trying to change.”