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It's not your father's law firm any more

A stroll through the San Diego law office of Morrison & Foerster resembles a typical atmosphere for a young high-tech company. It is a relaxed, hip place with the now traditional trappings of the modern dot-com environment -- surfboard hanging in the lobby, acrylic art panels, flat screen plasma monitor with Web access along side it. But, of course, Morrison & Foerster is no start-up, tech company -- it is a law office of a firm that has been in business for more than a century.

More than a departure from the traditional legal office, where marble floors, Persian rugs, mahogany wood paneling, cheery wood furniture and stately portraits tend to dominate the scene, Morrison & Foerster is a leading example of a growing movement in modern law office design. This movement casts aside the stately conservatism of traditional legal settings, and embraces the modern design that promotes a casual yet professional space where comfort and utilitarian virtues help to promote a cohesive and productive workplace.

This new office embraces modern technology and addresses common problems that plague today's workplace. Video conferencing, training, an online law library and computer technical support are all available at the fingertips of each worker. Workstations, complete with height adjustable surfaces and the incorporation of both daylight and indirect lighting make for a significant reduction in workplace discomfort and repetitive stress injuries.

The San Diego office of Morrison & Foerster departs from the traditional law office d?cor to one that reflects the culture of its high-tech and biotech clients.

"Morrison & Foerster has a lot of high-tech and biotech clients," said Nancy Creech, Morrison & Foerster's office administrator. "We wanted our new office design to reflect the culture of these types of clients, yet still provide for a professional and productive workplace. We achieved both of these goals with the help of Carrier Johnson, and our clients and employees are all quite impressed and happy with the new office."

This new trend in law office design not only embraces modern technology and aesthetics, but also can serve to remove the traditional hierarchical culture extant throughout the legal culture. In the San Diego office of Luce, Forward, Hamilton & Scripps, the stratification of the conventional law office has been replaced by an open design that promotes teamwork and conviviality.

"We wanted our office to have a casual residential feeling to reflect the suburban location of our San Diego office," said Executive Director Vincent Mercurio. "Additionally, we wanted the office to promote a sense of teamwork, openness and equality among all of our employees."

The San Diego office of Luce, Forward, Hamilton & Scripps uses modular furniture and stackable panels for ease of configuration.

Luce, Forward, Hamilton & Scripps' office floor plan reflects the concept of creating individual neighborhoods -- each with their own characteristics and color scheme. The furniture is modular with stackable panels for ease of configuration. The ceiling at the entry of the "neighborhoods" is lowered to announce the entry and the ceiling at the window wall is raised in height to increase the sense of openness and volume of space.

The non-hierarchical design allows every person in each neighborhood visual access to exterior windows, natural light and the views beyond. Private offices are glass fronted, and workstations are kept low and incorporate glass panels to maintain eye contact among attorneys, paralegals and legal secretaries.

The main circulation area around the office core is accented with vertical wood and metal strips and exterior siding to create larger scale and rhythm. This forms a notable contrast to the more horizontal emphasis of the glass-fronted offices and workstations. The entrance to each "neighborhood" is bracketed with a perforated wood screen with an accent paint color behind it to announce the color scheme for that neighborhood. The color palette throughout incorporates warm, natural materials such as natural aluminum doorframes, glass, sisal-textured carpet, maple wood doors and furniture.

The reception and main conference area sets the tone of the space with hardwood flooring and modern residential furnishings. The wood and glass doors to the conference room slide to one side so that the space can serve the dual function of conference room and as a larger entertaining area.

The overall impact of these two office designs is to discard the traditional stuffiness extant in traditional law office designs. Morrison & Foerster and Luce, Forward, Hamilton & Scripps both demonstrate the new movement towards causal openness and comfortable professional settings. These new designs promote teamwork and productivity in a fun and soothing environment. These are not your father's law offices.

Elliott is principal of Carrier Johnson.

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