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Case Studies

Work Design Now 2013 Winner -

McDermott, Will & Emery
Washington, DC

Thanks to the unique scenery and historic location—a decrepit structure across from Union Station McDermott Will & Emery (MWE) began the year-long process of designing, building, and launching a new space that fully embodies its design mantra: “Brilliantly big, ingeniously small.”

Work Design Now 2013


"Brilliantly big, ingeniously small"

On six floors covering 172,000 square-feet of office space in Capitol Hill, MWE set out to re-establish its brand and make a definitive statement about its prime role in the DC community. 

In following with Burchfield’s guidance, MWE approached this overall design strategy in a non-traditional way. According to Paul Sicari, the office administrator who led the redesign at MWE, law firms often ask senior leadership to decide whether to stay or go, and also on how to design or redesign the space.


“We’re hiring people today who are building our future client base. When they become partners in 10 years, we don’t want them to look around and see an outdated, obsolete space. So we asked this next generation of leaders to help us define a space for their future. And the senior leadership supported us as we tried to bring the younger generation’s feedback to life.” 

David Rush, workplace design strategist at Haworth, said that this focus on branding is increasingly top of mind with his clients. 

“Brands run much deeper than what we can see at the surface,” Rush said. “Ideally, brand expression is a bit like putting a mirror up to the culture and vision of a company. That can be extremely powerful and important as a business tool. An effective design conveys who you are, what you stand for, what sets you apart, and what messages you want to communicate.” 

The branding exercise that started with gathering ideas from the younger generation transitioned into gaining older-generation stakeholder buy-in. MWE hired Gensler to help with that process—and continue guiding the new design through its launch.

“Gensler got the importance of branding,” Sicari said. “It’s not typically in the Washington market to find companies that have spaces designed with a brand in mind. It was wonderful to work with a partner who understood that we were willing to jump on that. As a result, I expect we’ll see more of that in the Washington market.”

Terri Barnhart is a design director at Gensler in DC; she led the design team on the MWE space. Her goal in working with MWE was to convey culture in the feel of the space as you walk through it. But in order to accomplish this outcome, Barnhart and her team spent more than six months getting to know MWE, its team, and its behavior.

“When clients walk into the MWE space, they should be able to say, ‘These are the right people for me.” Even though the new space was built in six months, the process of understanding MWE was longer. It was necessary to be able to showcase a stunning space that represents their firm today and 15 years from now. So we wanted to make a big statement but address the tiniest of details, as well.” This was the impetus behind their branding focus of “Brilliantly big, ingeniously small,” which guided every aspect of Gensler’s design. The design concept came from a visioning exercise Gensler led at MWE.

“For us, it was an opportunity to have large, bright spaces and views while attending to the small details like textures, fabrics, and finishes,” Barnhart said. “It got the committee very excited, and their enthusiasm was the launching pad for us to generate even more enthusiasm. We used this phrase to establish the finishes starting from your first step inside the front door. But we applied it outside, too, so when you get out of a car or walk out of Union Station, you see McDermott Will & Emery—and you are drawn to it.” 

The building is different from the immediate architecture around the block. The glass building sets it apart, even without signage, which is grand yet blended within landscaping outside the front door. The marble floors and other finishes seen through the windows from the street harken to the architecture and design of Union Station across the street. 

It both fits in, yet stands out and makes a statement. 

Said Bob Fox, publisher of Work Design Magazine, “Stepping inside this space, you sense an air of lightness and collaboration. From the ground-floor Waterworks space—which is a homage to the Washington Office founding managing partners, Tim Waters and Chuck Work, who collaborated informally while building MWE during its earliest days—to the wifi-enabled roof deck, the MWE space clearly is forging its own path. It shows other law offices what ‘designing for the future’ looks like.”

“If we want to be a leading firm in Washington, DC, we need to be unique in every way.”

–Bobby Burchfield, Principal at McDermott Will & Emery

Customer Profile

McDermott Will & Emery was founded in 1934 and is an international law firm with a diversified business practice. One of the largest grossing law firms globally, McDermott represents a wide range of commercial, industrial and financial enterprises, both publicly and privately held. The Firm also houses the largest tax practice in the United States. Currently numbering more than 1,100 lawyers, McDermott Will & Emery has 18 offices across the United States and Europe. McDermott advises 82 percent of the Fortune 100. McDermott represents clients in 70 countries across six continents, with 35 different languages spoken.