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Designing the Smart Office

Where form meets function

FROM: April / May 2005, PAGE 38 BY: Phillip M. Perry

You might think that the ninth floor of a Des Moines, Iowa, bank building would be a pretty status quo work space. Au contraire. It’s where a unique litigation boutique is turning heads by turning the tables on the traditional concept of law office design.

Given the chance to build their dream space, most firms would quickly wonder, “Just how big can we make the lawyers’ offices?” But the Des Moines-based firm The Law Chambers of Nicholas Critelli, p.c., went a completely different route—it eliminated individual offices altogether. Instead, it created a space that reflects the flow of the litigation process, distilling the discreet steps of its practice specialty—acting as trial or local counsel to other members of the bar—into formal patterns of working areas.

Each work area is replete with tools tied to a specific case-preparation step—whether that means computer equipment, presentation technologies, conferencing apparatus, litigation databases or even writable walls. Lest that all sound aesthetically dry for a lawyer’s way of thinking, not to worry. There are also elegant appointments such as stained-glass windows, leather sofas and walls lined with ceiling-high bookshelves.

The sum of the parts is a space that mixes layout, furnishings and high-technology to enhance and invigorate thought processes. It’s a remarkable office paradigm in which space is less a static venue for shuffling papers and conversing with clients and more a dynamic extension of the lawyers’ minds. Form truly follows function within these walls.

It’s a Litigation Wonderland

The spark for the innovation occurred when the firm’s landlord asked it to move to new quarters so its space could be rented to another, larger tenant. While the prospect of moving is usually an unsettling one, the Critelli boutique decided to turn a disadvantage into a benefit: “We were able to negotiate a new lease and decided to create an office which reflected the way we were practicing law,” says partner Tre Critelli, son of the firm’s namesake partner, Nicholas Critelli. Quite notably, both father and son are trained as English barristers as well as U.S. trial lawyers (which explains the use of “Law Chambers” in the firm’s name). Altogether there are five lawyers who work from the Des Moines office, with a sixth firm member working solely offshore.

At the heart of the redesign was the idea that physical space should reflect and enhance the activities conducted within it. “We have always envisioned litigation as a ‘process,’” says Tre Critelli. “Our ultimate goal was to create a work space that contributed to this process, thereby increasing our efficiency and productivity and hopefully improving our work quality.”

To achieve its ambitious goal, the firm decided to divide its new offices into seven distinct spaces, each dedicated to a specific litigation task. There are rooms for conferencing, researching, pleading and briefing, litigation data input, trial production and case brainstorming, plus a “Big Room” for mediation, jury research and mock trials. Each room was carefully designed with equipment and work surfaces that support the lawyers’ thought processes. The redesign was completed in summer 2001.

Because every activity in the workday is accounted for by one of the seven rooms, the lawyers no longer have a need for private offices, allowing the firm to eliminate individual offices in the redesign. Plus, the firm integrated an impressive array of technology tools, including a virtual private network, enabling the lawyers to telecommute as they need to (or just choose to) from anywhere in the world—especially important in a firm where there are lawyer-barristers who sometimes work from a London office.

In addition to a host of computer equipment, high-speed Internet access, scanners and fax machines, the VPN and litigation management software, the space also incorporates an awful lot of presentation and video technology. Indeed, there is so much video equipment that some of the rooms resemble television production facilities and are referred to in similar terms. There is “Studio A,” for example, which is the digital media center. Then there is “Studio B” for data input, “Studio C” for pleadings and briefings, and “Studio D” which is the case-strategy war room.

To see how it all comes together, let’s visit a few of the rooms.

In Studio B: Data Input

This room houses all the equipment and software for supporting the data input required for complex litigation. Do four monitors for one work desk sound excessive? Not if you have digitized all the facts in a case and want to be able to see the various elements side by side. “Having a multiple monitor setup makes inputting documents, cutting and pasting [between documents], and case analysis much easier,” says Tre.

Although electronic documents are clearly common in this firm, the lawyers also use paper versions whenever those are easier to decipher. The room’s physical layout addresses this as well. As Tre describes it, “Our computer console setup has the monitor shelves lifted sufficiently high so that I have a lot of desktop space underneath the monitors where I can have open binders of paper documents. As a result, I can go easily between the scanned record, the paper record and the CaseMap database [where all data about a case is stored]. Just this simple idea has made data input and analysis more efficient.”

In Studio D: The War Room

As the term suggests, the war room is the venue for serious legal discussions of case goals, strategies and tactics. Upon entering this room, immediately apparent to the visitor is the handwriting on the wall—literally. The walls are covered with a material called “wall talker,” which enables the lawyers to freely write and erase on the surface as they brainstorm. Plus, it doubles as a projection screen. And two video terminals allow the lawyers to project enlargements of documents, drawings and camera or videotape output directly adjacent to the wall visuals.

The idea behind the design is that the firm’s lawyers and their clients can get a much better feel for the entire campaign when there is sufficient space to picture the entire flow of logic in visual form. “When it comes to brainstorming with clients, pictures can help,” says Tre. “When we are engaged in setting goals for a case and determining strategies, we may have the entire wall set up with timelines, factual events and deadlines. When arguing some evidentiary point, it’s great to have a huge space on which we can spread out all of these materials, such as flow charts, presentations, posters. The room becomes the brain trust of everyone during a case.”

In the Diagnostics Room: Legal Research

Ever gotten deep into a knotty research project at your desk or in a common conference room, only to be interrupted by someone dropping in with a question? Or perhaps been thrown off focus by the mere sight of an unrelated file sitting at the edge of your desk? Then you can appreciate the advantages of working in a dedicated space where nothing can intrude.

While the firm is totally wired-up elsewhere, this room’s design is all about hitting the books. “Having a specific room for legal research has been very effective,” says Tre. “I have found the time necessary for this work decreases with the amount of focus you can bring to it.” There’s another advantage to this research-only room: “I have the opportunity to leave my research materials out without concern that someone will need to move them due to a client meeting. This is very helpful on the larger, multiday research projects.”

Solving Problems Along the Way

As these descriptions suggest, the Critelli firm has created an impressive new office design. Yet the road to nirvana was not without its rough patches. Networking all of the new equipment, for one thing, was a major challenge. “We had to give abnormal consideration to the placement of Ethernet plugs and AC outlets, the wiring of our cable, Cat-5 and analog networks, and where we wanted all of the equipment to be,” says Tre.

For example, there was the poster maker, which the lawyers use to create document enlargements for trial. “We wanted to keep it out in the production room rather than put it away. We installed some shelving for the machine, then realized we forgot the plug. So we had to add a plug 4 feet from the ground in the middle of the wall.” Rather humorously, he adds, “Our electrician complained about how many outlets we were putting in, yet we still don’t have enough. You can always use another power outlet!”

The glitches weren’t all electronic. While eliminating individual offices was a radical step, the fact remained that people needed someplace to put keys, personal mail, phone messages and similar items. “We eventually put a standup desk in our combination reception area and library as a place for this type of stuff,” says Tre. “We also have a drawer in the filing room cabinets that we can use to store items that we probably would have kept in our desk drawers, if we had our own desks.”

What about when a phone call comes in and the receptionist isn’t sure which room an attorney is in? The base is covered: “We solved this,” he says, “with an internal public address system similar to what physicians use.”

Magnifying Thought at Every Turn

By wedding room layout, furnishings and high-technology to project flow, The Law Chambers of Nicholas Critelli has shown how a law office can work as a productive physical distillation of the legal process, each step manifesting itself as a metaphor of equipment and space. Actually, Tre Critelli describes the result of the redesign as a kind of litigation machine. “You put documents and facts in one end of the machine,” he says, “and at the other end a brief comes out.”

The lesson learned from this firm’s innovative redesign is that an office is more than a space where you plop down at a desk to accomplish the day’s tasks. Space can be used to enhance and magnify the thinking processes that every practitioner uses to meet legal challenges. The patterns of the space can, in fact, help the lawyer think in new ways.

Phillip M. Perry ( phil@pmperry.com) is an award-winning journalist based in New York City who has published widely in the fields of business management and law.