By C.C. Sullivan
What does cutting-edge audiovisual technology have to do with the practice of law? The answer is hardly apparent to most people, who instinctively equate legal operations with neoclassically detailed mahogany shelves with stacks of monochromatic, leather-bound volumes. The law, as they say, is on the books.
Yet the future of the profession is quite different, embodied by offices like those of the global law firm Nix, Patterson & Roach (NP&R) LLP, set on the 19th floor of a high-rise in the Dallas-Fort Worth suburb of Las Colinas. Like many cutting-edge legal operations, the firm uses its global presence, communications capabilities, and technological superiority to win business - and court cases. This way of working, which requires a highly integrated but discretely revealed computing and telecommunications platform with sophisticated conferencing and AV capabilities, challenged the Dallas office of the design-build AV provider, The Whitlock Group, to exceed expectations. It also informed the interior architecture designed by Leo A Daly's Dallas team in surprising and highly visible ways.
"Their office started in a small town, but they grew to be a global litigation firm with state-of-the-art technology capabilities, and they wanted that persona to be established," says Erron Young, Leo A Daly project manager. "They didn't want to look like the same old law firm. In fact, they said they wanted a CSI Miami look, transferred to the legal profession."
Translating the television show's sleek, ultra-modern scenery meant infusing the firm's lobby, conference rooms, entertaining spaces, private offices, and even typical workstations with a palette of sophisticated finishes, lighting, and furnishings.
"The layout of the space itself and the lighting are extremely important if you study the CSI footage, so we brought on board a lighting designer and AV consultants who were familiar with these effects and worked really closely with those groups," says Barbara Carlson, senior interior designer with Leo A Daly. "Our company did a lot of research on materials, such as for the curved metal panels on the doors into the conference room and entertainment areas - they catch the light perfectly, creating shade, shadow, and highlights."
But even before arriving inside the 14,000-square-foot office's lobby, visitors encounter the firm's brand, rendered in stainless steel and floating upon layers of glowing acrylic. If the palm scanner gives the green light, the hand-cast, textured-glass main doors glide open automatically, revealing a striking space carefully illuminated with blue- and white-colored lamps.
Instrumental in creating "the look" are large, subtly convex ellipse-shaped ceiling panels of a crushed acoustical material, ringed by a cove space with multicolored LED fixtures that accent the centers of the lobby and meeting spaces. Wenge wood floors with inlaid stainless-steel bands echo the ceiling grid. Color-changing acrylic walls and backlit polycarbonate ceiling panels add an ethereal touch. In the main conference room, a wall of steel mesh and black fiber glass surrounds a rear-projection video display, acoustically damping the setup, with wall-mounted touch panels for easy user control.
Toward the back of the main lobby, a series of 9-foot stainless steel doors are cut with distinctive rippled patterns derived from algorithmic formulas. (larger image)
Can't Beat "The System"
The space looks high tech, and this is hardly the illusion of television: NP&R professionals use a fully integrated technological approach they've dubbed "The System," which has proven successful, for example, in the firm's well-publicized litigation against the tobacco industry. The System integrates document-capture and media tracking applications with videoconferencing and display technologies.
Among the most impressive features of The System is its real-time deposition transcription technology. The deposition concept is quarterbacked from a lead videoconferencing facility known as the Command Information Center, or CIC, according to Craig Taylor, an account executive with The Whitlock Group. "They have the capability to conduct up to eight simultaneous depositions at eight locations around the world, all quarterbacked from the CIC, which leverages the testimony they're giving," Taylor explains. "Nix Patterson can schedule experts and their peers all at the same time, so they can read each deposition and watch them all in real time. This allows the lawyers in the CIC to communicate back to attorneys in the field through instant messaging, telling them what people are saying and prompting them to ask for any added information they need. It's almost unfair!"
He adds, "It has been a money-savings approach, too. Only one lawyer has to travel to the deposition site, and that gives them a tremendous advantage over their opposition. A lot of things at Nix Patterson's new offices are just for the ‘wow factor,' but this is where they leverage technology to win cases for their clients."
Other systems designed to support the firm's winning track record include audio streaming, research databases, and high definition video displays. Conference rooms with high definition videoconferencing capabilities have ceiling-mounted document scanners, allowing the legal teams to capture images of papers and evidence on the marble-slab table below and display them to the videoconference participants around the world. NP&R also employs a Volicon broadcast monitoring system, which can record up to 16 weeks of television on various stations, store the data, and allow lawyers to find useful clips. "It works through closed captioning," Taylor explains. "So you could automatically search through 2 weeks' worth of CNN, FNN, and the like, by keyword or phrase for anything that happened over the last 2 weeks, and the video clip comes up instantaneously."
In the law firm's main conference room, dark wenge wood flooring and a marble table provide contrast to such high-tech elements as modern pendant lighting and a rear projection screen, with hidden speakers set in an acoustically damping surround. (larger image)
To give an idea of these powerful, 21st-century tools at their clients' disposal, NP&R professionals envisaged a place that would convey a cool, cutting-edge image. This breaks from the norm seen at more traditional law firms of this stature, where the lobbies may feature beautiful original artwork and dark wood walls, more suggestive of a British club than a modern workplace. NP&R professionals wanted none of that, instead wanting to convey their global scope and ability to leverage technology for the benefit of their clientele.
To get that instant read, the project team conceived an extraordinary mix of imagery, materials, and lighting that would impress even the most world-weary corporate titan. Balance was vital, however, says interior designer Carlson: "We had to be careful that it didn't look like a circus or playland. It still had to look classic and sophisticated," she explains. For example, the custom reception console, of Olympian Danby marble from Vermont, takes its inspiration from a classic stone pillar. "But it's a very contemporary form," says Carlson.
Spanning the Globe(s)
The gesture contrasts with a huge glowing orb nearby - the Megasphere, as it's known - a video-art installation behind a sheet of plate glass. The huge, 240-foot spherical apparition, created by projections onto angled mirrors and a 10-foot-wide screen, is powerful and, for some, slightly disorienting.
Not far from the video art is another ball of high-tech chimera: a 4-foot-diameter globe that is also a display device. From a simple map of the earth to displays of fireworks or a creepy eyeball, anything can be rear-projected from the three-chip, 3,000-ANSI-lumen projection system hidden in a custom pedestal box. Most suitable to the firm's mission - and the medium - is such imagery as the earth with real-time weather patterns or population superimposed. We're not just lawyers, it seems to say; we're the masters of the universe.
With these kinds of AV pyrotechnics greeting visitors, who needs architecture? According to Leo A Daly's Young, the key role of the designers was not only to temper and reinforce the technology with a comfortable, sophisticated workplace but also to ensure effective integration and a cost-effective, functional final product. "We pushed the efficiency to the ultimate and exceeded Texas energy standards by 1 percent," says Young. With a high degree of project coordination, the team managed to get the superior energy performance despite having extra challenges in other areas, such as limitations to interstitial space for equipment.
Aluminum plank flooring and full-spectrum LED lighting behind acrylic ceiling panels add a highly contemporary touch to the socializing space. The bar top, which "folds" into a soffit, is of white marble. (larger image)
This ability to bring together a large consulting team and a variety of systems and materials is hardly evident to NP&R's visitors. What clients see and touch when they enter the workplace matters just as much as the well-hidden componentry that keeps the firm on the leading edge.
Highlights of the spaces include the lobby, the entertainment space, and the main conference room, as well as an Asian-inspired tearoom located in the back-of-house area proximate to several offices and conference rooms. The latter is a tranquil, Zen-like retreat, marked by clean lines and natural stone - the yin for the law firm's overriding yang.
Throughout the rooms, unique details meld the haut-tech look with the tastefulness of a Swiss airport lounge. The metal detailing is especially noteworthy, such as ripple patterns on 9-foot stainless-steel doors at the back of the lobby and brushed aluminum planks on the floor of the entertainment space. Other elements gracefully incorporate the audiovisuals: The minimalist, white stone-clad wet bar, for example, frames a two-way mirrored wall that hides a bank of video screens. Overhead, a polycarbonate ceiling glows in varying hues and intensities, thanks to LED fixtures within.
The typical workstation for support staff features desk surfaces of a white composite stone that offsets the charcoal carpeting below. (larger image)
Employees of NP&R get to live the high-tech, CSI Miami life also. The offices and conference spaces are similarly outfitted with nuanced décor and handy AV gadgets. Unlike the show's sometimes dark interiors, however, the workplace enjoyed by the legal eagles of Las Colinas enjoy bright, sunlit spaces. In the most modern of ways, Nix Patterson's offices win the case.
C.C. Sullivan (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a communications consultant and author specializing in architecture, design, and construction technology.