September 1, 2010

Showdown at Black Rock: Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe Isn’t Your Granddad’s Law Office

Companies of all stripes may be moving to bench desking and open plans. Still, legal leaders retreat into mahogany-paneled foxholes and corner case rooms, while paralegal pools are hermetically sealed off from light and air. It’s not difficult to make a case that big white-shoe law firms, intensely tradition-bound and hierarchical, just aren’t ready for the workplace revolution.

Exception, your honor.

Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, a 147-year-old San Francisco-based litigation specialist, has long dispensed with professional conventions—for example by relocating headquarters South of Market, a decade before any other entity of such stature would even consider the area, and centralizing global back-office operations in West Virginia. Orrick made headlines by announcing bold domestic-partner policies for gay and lesbian employees before the current focus on the debate. The firm refuses to measure profits per partner, and younger lawyers regularly dash off on pro bono missions to Rwanda or China. 

Transparent, boundary-pushing Orrick is not your granddaddy’s law firm, a fact particularly evident at the New York location by Studios Architecture­. “We pride ourselves on being a pioneer­ in whatever we do,” Peter­ Bicks says. As Orrick’s New York partner in charge, he’s sure other firms will follow suit.

Spread over nine stories at Black Rock, Midtown’s fabled CBS tower, the 220,000 square feet of offices, conference rooms, and record-keeping instantly broadcast Orrick’s character. Private offices are sheathed in floor-to-ceiling glass, framed by classically modernist square bronze mullions, so partners and associates­ sit in plain view, with every­ brief and family photo visible. “Frankly, it’s just nice to see other people working,” Bicks says.

Yes, offices do ring the perimeter­ on all four sides, but the clear glass admits big views and ample­ daylight into the open-plan support zones. Everyone gets the same suite of tasteful systems furniture, too. With panels of oak and strap legs of extruded brass finished in antiqued­ bronze, the custom kit of 12 parts allows attorneys and para­legals alike to personalize their layouts and storage options. That’s a far cry from heavy, traditional case goods. In addition, the very up-to-date materials palette includes chiseled limestone for elevator lobbies and formed birch for the reception desk and feature walls. The glass enclosures of meeting rooms have fading interlayers; chandeliers are LED.

Studios principal David Burns and associate principal Erin Ruby also paid thoughtful homage to Black Rock itself, Eero Saarinen and Associates and the Knoll Planning Unit’s 1965 landmark in a sunken plaza. The exterior features imposing dark granite pillars and punched-out windows that were as unusual for the time as the all-concrete structure. Inside, the original rectangular doughnut floor plate, designed on a rigorous 5-foot module, provided a Cartesian canvas for Florence Knoll’s more organic flourishes. Recalling her innovative concept of “domesticating the office­,” Studios created a language of articulated elements. A discerning eye will notice a few historical conceits, such as the Knoll-esque pop of color from the lacquered credenza in each conference room and the 5-foot module of the terrazzo floor’s circle-in-a-square inlays.

Orrick’s New York administrative partner, Gaelyn Sharp, highly appreciative of Burns and Ruby’s aesthetic, points out that their Saarinen tribute goes far beyond flooring or a couple of Womb chairs: “It’s about being true to his principles, making the space adaptable.” And it worked. At about 700 square feet per attorney, Orrick is close to 20 percent more efficient than the average law office. “Plus, there’s the ability to densify further by splitting case rooms to create offices,” Burns explains. These metrics certainly suit Orrick’s long view concerning the most efficient use of resources.

Yet there’s more to it than mere efficiency. “Traditional offices feel cramped, muscle-bound, and stodgy-nowhere near as vibrant. A nontraditional path has some risk, but I can’t tell you what a boost this has been,” Bicks says, pointing to the buzz activity glimpsed between the birch slats of the feature wall to the side of the boardroom. What more lawyerly proof do you need?

Photography by Eric Laignel.

Todd Degarmo (Principal in Charge); Dervla Reilly; Jane Richter; Tara Roscoe; Alberto Valladares: Studios Architecture. Johnson Light Studio: Lighting Consultant. Cerami & Associates: Audiovisual Consultant. Weidlinger Associates: Structural Engineer. AMA Consulting Engineers: MEP. McGrory Glass: Glasswork. Precision Glass & Metal Works Co.: Glasswork, Metalwork. Amuneal: Metalwork, Woodwork. Modern Woodcrafts: Woodwork. VVA: Project Manager. JRM Construction Management: General Contractor.

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