Case Study: Designing for Successful Change

Sept. 1, 2005
By Adam Guzman and Kristen Klint
Two case studies provide solutions for financial and legal firms reshaping for the future.

Changing forces in the financial- and legal-services industries are calling for innovative ways of shaping workspaces that address new needs of clients and employees. For firms offering financial services, a fast-changing and diversifying market, retaining loyal customers is a major challenge critical to future success. According to a recent study by Deloitte & Touche, financial-services firms need to be more knowledgeable about their customers by adapting their operational and delivery methods.

Law firms face similar problems and need to change their ways of delivering legal services, including increasing automation of documents, says webzine Law Practice Today in its June 2005 issue. "Law firms today operate in a structural straitjacket that creates barriers to innovation," the journal says, referring to the traditional partnership model.

The design of office interiors for these firms can help address these problems by reorganizing people to better utilize advancing technology and respond more quickly to changing market conditions. For legal firms in particular, the growing number of mergers offers the opportunity for two firms to create a new, unified image, and way of doing that business that can be expressed visually through the interior architecture and space planning of new offices.

A look at the design of new offices for two firms, one financial and one legal, gives a view of lessons learned in planning processes and space solutions that are proving successful in a changing industry landscape. Designing for improved flexibility and collaboration can help professional service firms better attract and retain employees, while strengthening service to a wider array of clients.

Financial-Services Firm: RSM McGladrey Inc.For financial firms to meet the fast pace of the changing financial market, flexibility must be a key strategic goal. Workspaces can support this by creating a better, more flexible working environment for employees that moves away from the traditional hierarchy of office size and placement.

For example, private, enclosed offices should be more universal in size. When they are placed on the interior of a floor plan, open workstations can be arranged around the perimeter. More employees can access the benefits of natural illumination from the exterior.

With a more flexible plan, teams can be reorganized more easily to address different market segments. For RSM McGladrey, an image change was supported by this reorganization. The firm wanted to expand the perception of its services beyond accounting and tax preparation to show that a wide array of financial services was available for clients.

Interior design could meet this goal on two fronts—one for employees and the other for visiting clients. For employees, a training/ multi-purpose was created to emphasize the need for keeping employees current with market changes and information, making sure they have the best background. The training room was located adjacent to the main break room, partitioned with a moveable wall allowing for changes in function and space for varied activities. Both are on the exterior with views to the Kansas City's famed Country Club Plaza, and the design was bright and casual with varied seating and lighting.

The approach exemplifies the overall image the firm wanted to portray to clients—one that was stable but not stuffy, and still unique. The overall palette is warm tones with cool accents. The entry reception area was designed with wood and stone elements, rich colors and an expansive view of the neighborhood's surrounding Spanish-style architecture. A conference room at the front can be opened into the reception area after hours for client events.

"We now have clients and civic groups asking to use our space for their meetings—an endorsement of how others recognize how special this space is," comments Kristin Wing of RSM McGladrey.

Even though collaboration is encouraged throughout the office, some private common areas were created, serving employees and clients. Two alcoves on the exterior wall each offer a small daylighted space for two chairs with tablet arms. An informal round conference room is partially walled in glass, ideal for employee interviews. RSM's new offices offer a flow and openness that support collaborative areas flexible for the future.

Legal-Services Firm: Stinson Morrison Hecker, LLPThe merger of the law firm Stinson, Mag & Fizzell, with Morrison & Hecker gave the two company cultures a chance to express an updated image and brand to diversify its client base and serve existing clients better. After completing the merger a couple of years prior, the firm was ready to find a space that would accommodate its new unified corporate culture of innovation and service. The design also needed to balance Stinson's traditional approach with Morrison & Hecker's more contemporary office space.

Key to this design goal was a single main reception area, which was placed on the top floor to help unify all areas over nine floors. A deliberate attempt was made to mix the firm's various types of practice groups among the six floors designated for attorneys. The objective was to help raise awareness of the firm's total services, from real estate to employment litigation. Multi-purpose, flexible conference rooms support the desired collaboration and communication among varied professionals. A conference center was designed on the top floor, where conference rooms with state-of-the-art audio-visual systems facilitate depositions, mock trials and employee training. Other meeting rooms are more informal to function between small meetings, breaks and other employee activities.

Careful attention during space planning had to be paid to each of the numerous practice groups' required ratio of secretaries to paralegals and lawyers. Workstations and offices were arranged for flexibility to accommodate these variances. Paralegals were placed in an open-plan environment adjacent to secretaries to allow for additional flexibility between workstations. Two paralegal stations also can be converted easily into a work room when needed.

The legal library spaces in the new offices are less about impressive law volumes in a large library and more about providing technology and up-to-date resources for staff. Small resource centers and case records rooms are situated on every floor to provide easy access to research tools and materials.

Supporting the initiative to attract and retain employees, as well as general health/well being and life balance for employees, a new fitness center was also incorporated into the design. The center is also designed to enhance "cross marketing" among attorneys and another way to integrate the attorneys with the support department staff.

Following a lengthy process of touring spaces, reviewing images and visioning sessions, five key leaders worked with architects to define how their new work spaces would best be designed to successfully communicate innovation and expertise in legal services for a wide range of business types.

"The project team was able to give our law firm a new look and feel while successfully carrying through the cultures and traditions of two former law firms whose lawyers and staff had come together in a merger," comments Terry Brummer, Stinson Morrison Hecker, LLP.

These design approaches, aiming chiefly to improve flexibility, efficiency, and interaction are proving to help professional service firms better attract and retain employees, while strengthening services to existing and new clients.

Adam Guzman, project manager, can be reached at [email protected].

Kristen Klint, project architect, can be reached at
[email protected].

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