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Silicon Valley Style

By Donna Mallard | Jul. 2, 2015

Law Office Management

Jul. 2, 2015

Silicon Valley Style

Kirkland & Ellis and Cooley give us a look into their revamped Silicon Valley offices.

For Silicon Valley law firms, one of the premier locations is Stanford Research Park, 700 acres set aside by the university in 1951 for development. With drowsy, bucolic, oak-studded hills that slip gently toward the bay, the park has become one of the most competitive real estate markets in the nation. Thoroughfares like Sand Hill Road and Page Mill Road now carry the cachet of Wall Street and Madison Avenue.

Not long ago, two firms in the park - Cooley and Kirkland & Ellis - set out to redesign their interiors. Both wanted room to grow, but their immediate goals differed: Cooley wanted to consolidate two offices; Kirkland & Ellis wanted to increase its presence, designing a hub with dual-purpose spaces that could be converted to offices as needed.

The interiors of traditional law offices - of the sort in Hollywood period dramas - are lined floor to ceiling with leather-bound volumes. Oriental carpets, a massive oak desk, and a couple of Chesterfield armchairs lend an air of gravitas. But in cities where clients have slides and firefighter poles in their offices and the executives wear T-shirts to work, that approach feels out of touch.

Kirkland & Ellis, which opened its doors in Chicago more than 100 years ago, has expanded around the globe. It opened in San Francisco in 2003 and started subleasing in Stanford Research Park in August 2008, building a practice that emphasizes intellectual property and corporate transactions. Early on, the firm planned to put down roots in the area.

When the project team happened upon a two-story stand-alone building that had most of what they were looking for - proximity to clients, outdoor spaces for events, natural light, surrounding greenery and a stand-alone status they could infuse with their own identity-they signed a ten-year lease. But the 30,000-square-foot interior was dated and dreary. To undertake the overhaul, Kirkland & Ellis hired Studios Architecture, which designed striking interiors for Pandora in Oakland and Shutterstock in New York.

The goal was twofold: to bring a modern yet warm look to the office, and to create versatile spaces that could easily adapt to future expansion. "Maximum flexibility was a primary goal," says Corlyne Recht, senior director of administration, who led the project team's search for office space and was the firm's point person for the renovation. "Everything had to have a dual purpose." In the training room and smaller conference rooms, for example, Studios built in office infrastructure - doors and lighting in the right places, power and data coils stowed in the ceilings - essentially everything but the walls. "In many of the small conference rooms, you could slip in a wall to create a partner and an associate office," explains Recht. "It could be a weekend's work."

Currently, the location has 8 partners, 14 associates, and 8 other staff. As it grows, its space can be adapted to accommodate as many as 70 or 80 people. "We have found the space to be terrific for us," remarks associate Eric Cheng. "The bright and open layout provides us with a collaborative and relaxed environment, and it is well designed and functional for the work we need to do as well."

When it came to attorneys' offices, there was talk of making them all the same size, but ultimately tradition prevailed. On average, partners now occupy 180 square feet each while associates have 155. "There's a little bit more space, but not a grand space for partners," Recht notes.

Studios Architecture created offices that are clean and simple, selecting rift - cut oak and brushed aluminum furniture and contemporary white leather chairs and banquettes for guests. Construction work was on a tight schedule. "Painters were there 24/7 patching and repairing work from other trades," recalls Recht. " 'Wet Paint' signs were everywhere."

Universal workstations were another innovation in the name of flexibility. "Typically, each personnel type has a workstation type," notes senior project designer Karen Koenig. "Secretaries have transaction tops, in/out boxes, and other specific physical elements that separate them from other support workstations. We streamlined the layout to provide only one workstation type. People are able to be located anywhere, and future hires will always get the same workstation type no matter what their job description."

Koenig points out that although Silicon Valley law firms are on the forefront of design in some ways, they're still wedded to the classic layout: the perimeter devoted to attorneys and the interior zone filled with support staff. However, she notes, "We do have one firm beta testing having attorneys in open-plan workstations instead of exterior offices." Results, she says, have been mixed.

At Kirkland & Ellis, sliding glass panels adjacent to the reception area can be opened to create a large event space, or closed to form smaller conference rooms. Multiple shared work areas, which are becoming de rigueur in Silicon Valley, were created throughout. The social heart of the building is the break room, which encourages collegiality with a long "family" table surrounded by soft seating. Sliding doors open onto a patio with a barbecue, fire pit, plenty of lounge furniture, and an adjacent redwood deck. The overall design is sleek and appealing, with artful gestures such as a constellation of pendant lights dropping from the ceiling of the double-height lobby.

All of this was executed with a focus on sustainability, from plumbing and electricity down to earth-friendly cleaning products used by janitors. The construction took just under four months, and the office was awarded LEED Silver Certification in December 2013. California is in the vanguard of law firm design, Recht says, and Silicon Valley leads the way with a style that is "bright, classic modern with a hint of high-tech flair utilizing flex space." Koenig concurs, adding that this influence has spread beyond leafy Palo Alto. "The design direction that Silicon Valley embodies has started to migrate into other cities, as well as other types of non-high-tech office spaces, including financial institutions and academic environments." Kirkland & Ellis has found the results so successful, Recht says, that "glass fronts in both interior and perimeter offices were replicated in our New York office shortly after our build-out."

Cooley photography by Ray Osuna
Cooley photography by Ray Osuna

Cooley, a firm that's native to California, opened in San Francisco in 1920. Sixty years later it started a Menlo Park office, moving to Palo Alto in 1994. The firm has a thriving business ranging from commercial litigation to emerging-companies representation.

In 2000 the firm leased a building on Hanover Street, just off Page Mill Road, moving attorneys there and maintaining overflow staff in its previous office at Palo Alto Square, a short walk away. Before both leases expired in January 2015, Cooley set out to unite the entire staff under one roof. After looking around at alternative sites, the firm decided to stay at the Hanover Street campus.

"We're in a great location," says partner Kevin K. Rooney, who refers to Page Mill Road as "the law firm corridor," where "there's a limited number of buildings and there's a limited ability to build new buildings."

Another reason for staying put was to safeguard employees' commutes. "You plan your life around your commute," says partner Shannon Eagan, so moving any farther from Highway 280 would complicate things. Since employees come from different directions, she explains, "moving just a little could affect people."

Cooley signed a ten-year lease. To ensure that the redesign would be as seamless as possible, it enlisted the original design firm to rethink the space, making room for nearly 20 additional staff members, with room to expand.

"Most of what they wanted was already there," says Janea Nakagawa, a principal at BraytonHughes Design Studios. The San Francisco-based firm has designed such luxury hotels as The Ritz-Carlton in Chicago, the Four Seasons in Seattle, and the Fairmont in Nanjing. "[Cooley has] great outdoor spaces; they have an interior courtyard and an exterior patio and a huge gathering space right off the café. It was just a question of how we could get them to fit in for long-term planning."

Two constraints were a somewhat limited budget and a restriction on the scope of construction.

Technology advances had rendered large copy rooms and fax centers obsolete; those were easy places to make more efficient and recapture space. Ten offices for associates replaced a large supply and copy-center area along a prime stretch of windows. The partners' offices were also considered for reduction. "The planning module for attorneys in 2000 was very different - more generous than by today's standards," Nakagawa observes. "But because they were remaining in their existing space, we were trying not to touch that."

"The level of work involved in reconfiguring offices that already existed wasn't a good use of funds or time," adds Rooney. The strategic overhaul still managed to create 99 internal offices - a net gain of 37-with space to spare for conference rooms and filing and storage areas.

Since Cooley's 63 partners, 111 associates, and more than 100 staff would work in the building throughout the renovation, minimizing disruption was critical.

To prevent any office-overhaul horror stories - such as a box of key evidence for trial hidden beneath a drop cloth, or a disruption in telecommunications during a major conference call-the move was organized with military precision. Cooley renovated only about 40,000 of its 129,678 square feet of space and put into place an elaborate phasing plan, dividing the C-shaped building into quadrants that were sectioned off for focused renovation. "You could move [a few blocks away] to Palo Alto Square if the construction started to bother you," explains partner Eagan. "A lot of the construction was done overnight, so you could work in the quad during the day while that quad was under construction."

Many of the building's finishes, including carpets in offices and lighting, remained intact, and BraytonHughes folded new elements into the existing design. "We didn't want it to look choppy," Eagan says.

"If you walked in and we didn't tell you, I don't think you'd think, 'That looks reno'ed,' " adds Rooney. "The whole place looks put together, more modern."

Casual social and meeting spaces were introduced, and lobby and conference rooms were refreshed. The rooms are bright and modern, with glazed walls that maximize interior light. "That's one of the things they love about the building - it's so bright and the ceilings are high," Nakagawa says. The palette, which goes back to the original greens and wood hues that echo the building's slate façade, was made a little more current by brightening the whites and softening the natural tones.

In spite of the many moving parts, the design team finished the project right on schedule. Construction began in March 2014 and was completed in about five months. "It was remarkable," Rooney marvels. "I just finished a home renovation, and it was entirely the opposite."

A former editor at Architectural Digest, Mary Ore has written for various publications, including the New York Times and the Sunday Times.


Donna Mallard

Daily Journal Staff Writer

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