CEOs Talk Workplace: Leading a Law Firm through Radical Change

Paul Kiernan in the Washington, D.C. office of Holland & Knight. Photo by Bob Fox.

Paul Kiernan is not a CEO; he’s the executive partner in the Washington, D.C. office of Holland & Knight, a global law firm. But his leadership of this office — the firm’s largest — through a radical, industry-leading transformation was such a success, we knew we couldn’t let the title of this series keep us from including his valuable insight.

And we’re not the only ones who have noticed. Since Holland & Knight’s move in 2012, the design has been replicated in many of their other offices around the country, and in many other law firms across the District.

Scroll for the awesome insights he shared in our recent interview.

Photo by Bob Fox.

Bob Fox: Start out by describing a little bit about the firm, its demographic, how many attorneys, and so on?

Paul Kiernan: Holland & Knight is a global law firm of over 2,000 people, including about 1,100 attorneys and professionals all over the world, but primarily in the United States. Our Washington, D.C. office is the firm’s largest office; there are about 300 people who work here. We also have an office in Tysons that employs another 75 people.

When you started out thinking about this space, was there any sort of overarching goal or objective that drove your thinking?

Yes. The thought was you only have so many times in the life of your business when you get to reinvent yourself. So as best we can, we’re going to design not so much for the people working here today, but for the people who will be working here five to 10 years from now: What will their needs be, what will their clients’ needs be, what design will work best in the future? So we very consciously started from that perspective, which is “where is our industry going?”, as opposed to trying to replicate where it’s been.

Can you share with us some of the vision of what you see changing?

In the legal services industry, the idea of collaboration across practices has gotten more and more accelerated. The matters that are most difficult for our clients, the most interesting for our profession, are ones that cut across traditional groups.

Take an easy example like cyber privacy: it’s got litigation issues, it’s got corporate issues, it’s got risk and insurance issues, it’s got customer-facing issues. It’s got all these things that would traditionally be in different hives, but from a client perspective, they are all part of a single problem. Say a client has a data breach. That client has to deal with the press, with investigating government officials, with the corporate board, with the insurance company, with the customers whose data may be affected, and so on. We try to address the client’s issues holistically and across disciplines. We start from the premise that the profession is moving away from “what I do” versus “what you do” to more of “what we do together”.

And that’s informed our design decisions — everything from the decision to have glass-walled offices, to having more collaborative spaces, to having people organized by industry focus as opposed to seniority.

Photo by Bob Fox.

Are you organizing by practice or have you diversified?

I’d say little bit of both. Some of it is a little bit by practice, but so much more is across traditional practices. It’s not hard and fast. And the other industry trend I think we saw and believe is true is that a lot of traditional hierarchies of law firms are changing. While many law firms have gone to single-sized offices, we didn’t go quite that far, but we have a smaller number of options of offices. There are no corner offices — that’s public space. And we have more places where collaboration can happen.

How about in terms of attracting talent? Has that been a challenge and do you feel that the new space has helped?

I know that the space has helped, and I can give you a couple of examples. First, for the people behind me in seniority, environmental footprint matters. Things like light and air matter. Having collaborative spaces matter. It’s what people are used to. People want to be in an office where they can take their laptop and go sit in another space if they want to without a loss of productivity. And that has clearly helped us with recruiting.

The other thing that has helped us on the government floor space is that we’ve had people who are not lawyers — who have come maybe from a lobbying shop or they’ve come out of government or politics — who like that setting much better than a traditional kind of line of offices, with heavy wood paneling.

So you feel like you’ve introduced a level of choice in the workplace?

Yes, we have, and consciously. The things we spent a great deal of money on are technology, so that it’s effortless and seamless in terms of connectivity in the office, and, again, we were designing it five years ago so there have even been advances since then. But you can take your laptop and go sit in one of our smart rooms, you can take it and go sit on the roof of this building, and not lose any productivity. One of the things we thought about is an office that will support your practice, that will support your work when you’re not here, but is nice enough that you want to be here. So if you need to be at the airport, you need to be at a client’s office, you need to be out of town on trail, the office can support you. But when you are here, you like being here.

Photo by Bob Fox.

In your role, leading the D.C. office, how do you feel this space has worked to achieve the entire organization’s goals?

The space has clearly helped both the concept and the mindset of collaboration and transparency, literally as well as figuratively. And, I’ll give you an example: When we moved in here, there were a number of people that sent me emails the day that everyone moved in and saw the space for the first time, and said “I can’t live like this, it’s like living in a fishbowl, I’m not going to be able to stand this.” The answer was, calm down, give it 90 days, and to a person, everybody was fine with it. And so on the first anniversary of our move in, I sent an email around the office and said today, I’m officially deleting that folder of emails from all of you who said I can’t possibly live like this.

The other indication, just on a pure economic basis, is the year we moved offices we exceeded the budget for what we thought we were going to do in this office. So the year in which we moved, we didn’t lose productivity in moving, and we got right back on the job. But certainly, law firms and other businesses in town, when they move, it’s a major business dislocation — not just the expense, but the disruption of business. We really didn’t have that disruption of business. And this office has continued to exceed its goals and I think [the new space] is part of how we’ve achieved that.

The last point is, what we did here has been replicated more or less, not only in Holland & Knight offices, but in a lot of offices across the city. I’ve shown a lot of other managing partners this office. Not everybody’s done the same things, but everyone “gets it” from an industry perspective.

So on the performance of the organization, I’m curious, is there some aspect of space that you attribute to that performance?

I do. One is the connectivity. People want to feel a part of the team. When you have secretaries or paralegals or staff people who feel like there are things going on behind closed doors, and they don’t know what’s going on, and there are big long hallways with closed doors, I think it has an effect on morale. I think it affects productivity. And I think the opposite is true. When people feel connected, visually connected, and they see common spaces where people are at, I think it affects productivity. It’s a more efficient space, frankly.

One of my partners in our former building, said when he wanted it to be quiet he closed his door. And when he closed his door, everyone thought he wasn’t available. Now, his door is closed, it is perfectly quiet, and everyone sees he’s there. And I know that these kinds of things lead to increased productivity. I just know they do.

How about in terms of the performance of the space, is there any metric that you use or look at in terms of how space is performing?

In terms of the conference room space, I judge by how in-demand those spaces are. So, if we’ve got a dozen different conference rooms around the space and six of them are busy with client meetings, I see that as a plus. And because of the glass I can see which ones are busy! So that’s one thing. The second thing I look at wear and tear, and see if that indicates that people are using things. So in some of the communal areas that we have on each floor, we’ve had to do some upgrades on some of the wallcoverings. So I take that as an indication of use.

Some of the spaces, candidly, have been a little bit of a harder sell. The open corner spaces that we have that in other firms might be corner offices don’t get as much use from the staff that I hoped that they would. So I continue to look at how we can make good use of that space.

Photo by Bob Fox.

What is the biggest value that the space has delivered for you?

The biggest value, I think, is a sense that we work at an important place in town. That our clients, our competitors, our friends, they have been to our space, they recognize our space. It gives people the sense that they’re working at a great organization, which they are. And its not great space because it’s covered in gold — it’s great space because it works. It’s light, it’s inviting, and it’s energizing. And that’s been a tremendous value to us both internally in our work, but also in our market.

What you’re describing is in some ways really the culture of the organization. It sounds like the space has really reinforced, supported, helped to build the culture?

I think that’s fair. And it’s partly because that’s how we went into it, was to try to find a space that would help support the culture. We asked a lot of people how they used the space in the old space — what worked, what didn’t, what had they seen elsewhere that worked. We then tried very hard to think about what are we going to need five and 10 years from now, as opposed to replicating what we had.

A lot of very good, successful businesses say I want to move to a place that has a better view, but I want to keep everything else the same. One of the hardest things was moving here and having people get on board with the idea that they weren’t bringing their couch, they weren’t bringing their bookcase, they weren’t going to bring all of this old stuff. We were going to clean up the files, we were going to organize ourselves more efficiently. Some people wound up with larger offices, some people wound up with smaller offices. But there’s a trade-off which is, do I need a bigger office for my work? Or would I rather have a better collaborative space to work with my colleagues. And culturally, people said, I’d rather have that collaborative space than each partner to have a big office.

Where are you most willing to spend money to improve the quality of how the space supports the company?

The technology first. And I guess the common space, broadly speaking — not only the public conference room space, but the common space, like breakout areas, internal conference rooms, that sort of thing. And the flipside of it is, what I’m I willing to spend less money on, which is individual offices.

Now that you’ve lived in the space, is there anything that you would change, or do differently?

I don’t think there are major things. One thing we spent a lot of money on, very consciously, to make all of this work, was soundproofing. And particularly on the floor with the offices that are closer together, or even my office, if I’m on my phone and the door is closed, and there’s a person vacuuming my hallway, I cannot hear it. So you have a visual connection but you have a sense of privacy. That’s money well spent, because that affects how people can work.

You started out saying how you were designing the space for the next generations. So I’m curious, how has that generation reacted and what do you think they’re looking at now as they look out in the future?

I think there are going to be two trends, at least in the law business, that will run in parallel and continue to cross each other. One is more flexibility in terms of where I work and how I work. And related to that is the desire to be in a communal setting. So hopefully our space will continue to support people feeling part of the team but also able to work their own way.

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