Since its founding in 1919, the powerhouse law firm Covington has produced alumni ranging from Dean Acheson, President Truman’s Secretary of State, to former Attorney General Eric Holder, and it has an enviable client list within the Beltway. Yet success has not emboldened Covington lawyers to jockey for status or manifest some of the egotistic stereotypes of white-shoe practices. “A consequence of having a large number of long-term clients is that there’s a heavy emphasis on working across the practice and collaborating,” says managing partner Tim Hester.
In the 1980s, Hester remembers, such teamwork was obvious inside the law library at Covington’s former Pennsylvania Avenue headquarters. “There was energy and a cohesion when everyone went to the same place to access information,” he says. But that office lacked transparency and emphasized palatial partner suites over common areas, which exacerbated a feeling of isolation with the emergence of computerized work and research. “Now you never have to get out of your chair,” he says of the impact of the Internet.
The expiration of Covington’s lease on Pennsylvania Avenue allowed Hester and executive director John Waters to seek a greater sense of community with the design of a new office. The pair partnered with the D.C.-based architecture firm Lehman Smith McLeish (LSM) in the selection of CityCenter as its next long-term home, leasing 450,000 square feet within adjoining office buildings of the Norman Foster–designed mixed-use complex. CityCenter is located in a transitional part of downtown Washington, and the decision to move there illustrates the way Covington “takes very seriously its position of making a place better,” says LSM founder Debra Lehman Smith, who crystallized the commitment to neighborhood vitality by commissioning public art by Venezuelan artist Carlos Cruz-Diez for the lobby.
For the upper floors, Covington charged LSM to create an interior for approximately 1,000 staffers that encourages collaboration and injects energy. Lehman Smith partnered closely with Waters to rethink aspects of the firm’s processes. Assembling administrative centers around “intake areas” promised more even distribution of support work and less territorial treatment of assistants, for example. Convening IT and other services in a single location was another step toward reflecting the democratic spirit.
LSM responded to the brief most significantly by designing 72 collaboration areas, which are organized primarily around stairs and the bridges connecting the two CityCenter office volumes. “Common spaces really drive the building,” Hester says. “You’re witnessing people engage in their work, and it’s dramatically easier to interact casually.” He adds that the high-quality programming of these spaces—such as Covington’s choice of sustainable, locally sourced food for its casual dining room and bistro—incentivize employees to congregate and spend more time inside the headquarters.
While the traditional prize of law-firm meritocracy, a private office—one for each of Covington’s 185 Washington-based partners—remains anchored to the building perimeter, LSM trimmed the dimensions of each to 180 square feet, enclosed in a glazed partition wall. The 275 associates’ offices each measure 150 square feet; Lehman Smith explains that this modularity is more adaptable to shifting work styles.
These transparent offices make partners and associates more visible to their colleagues, which bolsters a newfound sense of togetherness. Hester says he now relies on spontaneous collisions for both socializing and more professional check-ins, and Lehman Smith says, “I’ve received e-mails from senior partners saying ‘I’ve seen more people in the last week than in the last two years.’ ” The smaller private work environments also trim Covington’s local real-estate consumption by 7 percent, which will save the firm $50 million over the lease term.
LSM (Lehman Smith McLeish)
1212 Banks, NW
Washington, DC 20007
P: (202) 295-4800
Personnel in architect's firm who should receive special credit:
Debra Lehman Smith, Partner
James McLeish, Partner (RA)
Terese Wilson, Partner
Richard Bilski, Partner (RA)
Donald Morphy, Senior Director
Gregory Weber, Senior Director
Rebecca Montesi, Senior Director
Mario DeGisi, Director (RA)
Janet Rankin, Director (RA)
Mark Andre, Architect
Jon Miller/Hedrich Blessing
Consultant – Art: Lisa Austin & Associates
Engineers – MEP: Dewberry,
Structural: Thornton Tomassetti
Consultant – Lighting: Fisher Marantz Stone (FMS)
Consultant – Graphics: Pentagram
Consultant – Audio Visual: CMS
Thornton Tomasetti (structural);
Lisa Austin (art);
Fisher Marantz Stone (lighting);
Covington & Burling
450,000 square feet
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