When Akin Gump submitted the plans for its Houston office renovation at the end of 2019, health and wellness were major themes.
The vision proved prescient as the Covid-19 pandemic was about to sweep the globe and U.S. shutdowns were just three months away. The firm completed the redesign in November 2020, and firm leaders say the original pre-pandemic plans were largely unchanged – a remarkable feat for any renovation project without the unique challenges of a once-in-a-century disruptive event.
To steer it through all of the small and big decisions of the makeover, Akin Gump tapped the global architecture and design firm Gensler. The law firm has a long working relationship with Gensler. The two also recently partnered on Akin Gump’s move to new digs in Dallas, which was completed at the beginning of 2019.
Akin Gump put together a design committee of about a dozen people, including partners, associates and non-lawyer staff to oversee the refresh. Two key people on the committee were Alison Chen, Houston partner-in-charge, and office administrator Jennifer Vance.
The Texas Lawbook sat down with Chen, Vance and Kenneth Wiesehuegel, who ran point on the project for Gensler, in one of the new Akin Gump conference rooms to visit about what it takes to shepherd the “office of the next generation” and glean early reviews from attorneys and clients.
Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The Texas Lawbook: Who all served on the design committee?
Alison Chen: It was partners, associates, and staff (about a dozen people total). We wanted to solicit a lot of input because we all work very differently. Age differences were also the key. This is the office of the next generation. We were sensitive to the transitional phase our office is going through and wanted the office to reflect experiences people will value for the years to come. So it was all about being very forward looking.
Kenneth Wiesehuegel: That kind of diverse committee is not always that common on projects like this. So I think it’s kind of the progressive nature and the culture of Akin Gump in this office in particular that really did that. And I think that’s why this space is so smart.
The Lawbook: Can you elaborate on a recommendation that came from a non-lawyer?
Jennifer Vance: Our “secret weapon” doesn’t come from a conservative law firm background. He comes from the restaurant business. And he has a lot of innovative ideas that a law firm may not entertain. But Alison and I are willing to play ball. And so he will throw us all a whole lot of softballs. And a lot of them are really good ideas. He’s super innovative in the hospitality space and he brought up the Icee machine and I said yes.
Wiesehuegel: And he had a good call.
Vance: Oh, it’s great. I had an associate say, “I want the office next to the Icee machine.” And he’s got it.
The Lawbook: What were some of the passion projects that died on the cutting floor?
Chen: We have glass and frost doors for attorney offices in our other newly-renovated firm offices — New York, D.C., Dallas, and LA. We were trying to mandate that here. That got killed! Oh, and the other thing [that got voted down very quickly] was the equalization of office space.
We have the luxury of being with our client [CenterPoint] in this building, renewing our lease, taking advantage of the incentives, [so] keeping the proportion [of offices] was a draw. Everyone else you see in the industry was getting smaller. People were talking about hoteling in professional services. We were able to keep this part of the office culture: come into the office, put up the pictures, make it personal. I think it’s important to have that personal connection to your workspace.
Wiesehuegel: That was one of the big advantages of staying in the building because, as you would expect, they went through a lot of evaluation on real estate options. The drivers of staying and the economics and the net benefit to some of the infrastructure that was already built had tremendous value and it really made sense at the end of the day for what the firm wanted and what the costs were.
The Lawbook: What were some of the things that you were particularly passionate about?
Chen: Moving our break area outward with windows for everyone. It’s really where the relationship develops, and we were doing it in isolation. The old break room was kind of depressing. How do we make it more fun? How do we make it more engaging? How do I make it so people will stay longer? And then I just thought, well, why can’t we just reshuffle some attorneys’ offices and just give everybody a view and some natural light? It’s such a wonderful space. I do think people feel better when they see sunlight just in general. And take a break. It’s also where we have a lot of traffic during the day. So, bringing people together, that goes into the collaboration theme.
Vance: And we put the social spaces around the central stairwell to keep that synergy going.
Wiesehuegel: It also speaks to the culture of valuing everybody that’s here, because there are plenty of people that aren’t sitting in a lawyer’s or law office on the perimeter. Instead of going to lunch or getting your coffee in an interior space, they get to the window and it’s really just valuing each and every person no matter what their role is. Everyone’s here for a reason, everyone’s important. And I think that’s a part of the Akin Gump culture.
Vance: Also, the library was you [Chen].
Chen: I’m a bookworm. Totally. I’m a tax lawyer. We are a law firm. What are lawyers without books? We were going digital, but I put up a big fight to keep the library. The trend is to get rid of books and libraries. I get it, I get it, but at least we made it flexible. We have shelves, but it’s another working station as well. And now that every place is so fun, it’s actually hard to find a place to focus. I don’t know if anybody else is in there as much as me. So when I retire, they can name it the “Alison Chen Library.”
Wiesehuegel: It’s also [an example] of future proofing. The library is the same size as an interior associate’s office. So if it ever goes away later, it can be easily converted without doing anything to the architecture.
The Lawbook: Why did you decide to coalesce around the themes of wellness and fitness for the redesign?
Chen: We were mindful that, even before the pandemic, the next generation cares about balancing and wellness. We started with a standing desk for every office. But the fitness room with the Peloton and the Mirror, all of that came from the associates. Yes, we encourage lots of billable hours, client service first, but it’s also your wellbeing. And then the meditation room – I thought we were going really progressive on that one, but it turns out our summer associates were all using it. And that was where the diversity of views really matters, because the older generation may not think of their workspace as a workout space. That was really interesting and eye-opening for me. I admit I’ve not been in the private gyms, but we were having scheduling issues [for the Peloton] because people were overbooking it in the morning.
Wiesehuegel: Akin is at the forefront of [designing for wellness] with meditation rooms and private gyms.
The Lawbook: What adjustments have you made to successfully maintain client relationships in the new environment?
Chen: Oh my gosh, our clients love our new conference space. We had something that was functional before. It was very practical. We incorporated some of the old with the new. With our color scheme, we adopted some of the older, very familiar, very solid design because that’s Akin. We are solid and practical. We’re not flashy, definitely, but we are using this opportunity to modernize the feel of the conference room with glass walls and technology. I think clients appreciate the modernization of things, the efficiency of time and also the collaboration.
Some of our clients are using our lounge room more than they’re using conference room space! The concept of connecting the floors really is self-evident when the clients are here. It feels very welcoming and it’s very personal. ‘I didn’t go to my lawyer’s office with my suitcase. I was having fun.’ It deepens our relationship.
Vance: We have a couple of clients who are within a couple of blocks of us who call and say, ‘Can we come work in your space?’ So, we have our regulars. They will come over and get a cappuccino or go upstairs and get an Icee, and then they will go downstairs and play basketball.
Chen (pictured right with the Pop-A-Shot): Meanwhile, we are all working together and then separately. So here’s the thing. That is a distinct element of the renovated office that we’re so proud of because, pre-pandemic, has a client ever called you and been like, “Can I come over and hang out?” Because the last thing they want to do is talk to lawyers. We are like their least favorite people (laughing). And now they have an excuse to come over.
The Lawbook: How do you see the new space helping with retention?
Chen: It’s hard to have engagement virtually. People want to connect. Right now, there’s a lot of attrition rate in the legal market. People are trying to find a different way to work, and firms are being a lot more flexible. We’re definitely not mandating people to be [in the office] five days a week. The firm’s messaging was three days a week. But we find that our attorneys in the Houston office actually come in more frequently than that. It’s the people element. When they come in, they work together — I see associates with laptops in our lounge room working together, conference rooms being booked, coffee brewing constantly, and it’s creating that vibe of working together and team building again. People are more intentional about their time in the office, which is good, because the last thing I want people to do is waste time in traffic. But while we save so much time when we can just roll out of bed in our pajamas and log on, you miss the human element of your work, and training and mentoring become challenging.
The Lawbook: Was there an example of the Gensler team steering you from a decent idea to a better idea?
Vance: A lot. Lots and lots of things.
Chen: Oh, gosh. Color selection was one. We all have our favorite colors. They were able to level set, like, “What is professional versus what’s for the movie theater?” You got to listen to the experts on designing to inspire professionalism and success.
The carpet selection was kind of hard, too. I remember you guys talking about sound, some flooring mechanism, and we’re like, “Oh, we didn’t even think about that.” So it’s not just the design, but functionality is always key. And that’s what you get from working with a designer who has done this a million times.
The Lawbook: Is there anything else you would like to add?
Wiesehuegel: We talked about diversity and inclusion on the committee. I also think having the individual restrooms is a way of making sure that people are comfortable no matter what. Having the individual gyms. It’s taking diversity to that next level, so that anyone that’s unique or different or feels a certain way has comfortable places to take care of themselves. We’re doing a lot more all-gender restrooms for projects and clients going forward. And the fact that all that stuff is already here in the Akin Gump space, I think speaks volumes.
Chen: Thanks to Jen, there’s that ‘wow’ factor. I’ve had attorneys tell me, “I feel like I’m in a different office,” and that’s refreshing. We want to inspire success. We want to inspire relationships. And I think we’re doing that with this new space.
Vance: It was definitely a hallmark project for my career. We had a lot of fun. Not everyone who is an office administrator gets to do buildouts. Sometimes there is a firmwide team that handles exclusively, and they just travel around to the offices to handle it. So it was fun to have this creative project in front of me.
Publisher’s Note: This article is a sponsored partnership with Gensler.