Firm's new office showcases a modernized Texas Lawyer's Creed

When the firm of Shipley Snell Montgomery recently moved its office to a historic downtown Houston building, it hired local architects at Mayfield and Ragni Studio to give the new space an affordable yet meaningful design. While many law offices across Texas take on a traditional décor, with chunky wooden bookshelves, oversized leather chairs, and framed artwork, Shipley Snell and the designers went a different direction—by implementing some tools of the lawyer’s trade and doing so in a modern way. This included hundreds of old law books used for a custom reception desk, several law journals stacked and tied with a belt and buckle to form an end table, and life-size words taken from the Texas Lawyer’s Creed—“A lawyer owes to a client allegiance, learning, skill, and industry”—painted on the walls throughout the lobby and meeting rooms.

Photographs courtesy of Mayfield and Ragni Studio and photographer Eric Laignel

According to the MaRS design brief on the Shipley Snell project, “In all, 495 books dating from 1904 through the 1980s were carefully arranged, with the oldest having their binding visible and the newer receiving one of a series of dye treatments along the visible page edges. A mathematical model was developed to derive a rational pattern of color variation and the books were each hand dyed and sequentially numbered prior to being pressed into rows forming the facing of the reception desk.” MaRS designers who worked on this project included Kelie Mayfield, Erick Ragni, and Becky Harrison.

 

We asked firm partner Joel Z. Montgomery a few questions about the office design and how the attorneys and staff like it so far.

Whose idea was it to use the Texas Lawyer’s Creed on the wall, why was this particular line chosen, and what purpose does it serve?

After our architects floated the concept of the “writing on the wall,” we all spent hours brainstorming what to say. We went through various famous law-related quotes from literature and movies, but nothing really jumped out at us. Finally, we seized on the notion that the writing would be in our reception area, where we meet our clients—so let’s remind everyone exactly what we owe clients and what clients can expect from us: allegiance, learning, skill, and industry. Because the mural spans the reception area and several conference rooms, it’s not obvious what it says. This sparks dialogue and invites us to emphasize in a personal way that we take very seriously our obligations to our clients.

 

Was there any apprehension to do a design that differs from the traditional law office?

Given that we were moving into a historic building, we felt that it was almost imperative that we balance out the traditional feel of the exterior with a more contemporary interior. The more open, modern office concept highlights the building’s great historic touches, like the stone window ledges and interesting angles, while de-emphasizing the lower ceiling heights and smaller windows. From the standpoint of who we are as lawyers—a litigation boutique—we rely heavily on technology, but we are very intentionally “old school” in our responsiveness to our clients and the level of professionalism we bring to our work. We think our offices reflect that.

What do you and the other attorneys and staff like most about the space design and its functionality?

Our office layout encourages teamwork and collaboration without going overboard to the point of distraction. As attorneys, sometimes our best work is done talking through case strategy together; other times, we need to put our heads down and draft briefs and court papers. Our offices have great collaborative spaces without being so “open concept” that the lawyers can’t work.

What has the response from clients been?

It’s been universally positive. Even clients with a more traditional taste in design have been very complimentary of the combination of “old school” and “high tech.”

Sixth Annual Atticus Finch Day scheduled for May 2 in Bryan

What is so special about Atticus Finch? He’s a fictional man who existed as little more than a figment of author Harper Lee’s imagination (unless you count actor Gregory Peck, who played Finch in the 1962 film adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird). Yet, Finch has a strong hold on numerous attorneys around Texas and the United States. His compassion, composure, and honor are forever present in the minds of readers, especially those lawyers who share Finch’s profession and have been deeply inspired by his character in and out of the courtroom.

With many having such noble aspirations, and such a perfect role model in Finch, it is at times surprising that lawyers have a bad reputation among some of the public. According to Shane Phelps, a criminal defense attorney in Bryan, Brazos County’s legal community was once “fractured and divided” and the subject of “considerable public contempt and ridicule.” “Scandals, personal animosities, and political rivalries made the courthouse a pretty unpleasant place to be,” said Phelps. “Lost in all of this was the important work that attorneys should be concentrating on.”

About seven years ago, these tensions came to boiling point in a Brazos County courtroom. Phelps and opposing counsel Phil Banks stood just feet from the jury and belligerently argued with each other in such close proximity that their noses almost touched and each man could feel the other’s spit and hot breath as harsh words were exchanged. Eventually, the moment calmed down and the trial went on. But Phelps and Banks were disappointed in the way they had conducted themselves—which was quite different from their Atticus Finch ideal that, along with the legacy of their grandfathers who also were Texas lawyers, made them want to get their JDs in the first place.

“During the difficult times at the Brazos County Courthouse … I re-read To Kill a Mockingbird,” said Phelps. “It occurred to me as I read about Atticus Finch that the legal profession could—and should—be so much more than what we were experiencing. We had truly lost our way. Re-reading the book had a profound impact on me.”

Phelps and Banks, having apologized to each other for their inappropriate behavior, decided to do something meaningful about the state of their legal community. So, they founded Atticus Finch Day, where attorneys from the surrounding area wear seersucker suits and skirts and gather to drink lemonade, read from To Kill a Mockingbird, and discuss ways that they can improve themselves as lawyers. “I do believe that, if we are not careful as attorneys, we risk getting so involved in winning at all costs that we lose sight of what is really important,” said Phelps. “The pursuit of victory, money, and celebrity can corrupt our ideals. I like to win and am as competitive as anyone, but there are principles and ethical standards that should guide us all in practicing law that we need to regularly revisit and to which we should regularly recommit ourselves.”

This year’s Sixth Annual Atticus Finch Day is scheduled for May 2, 2014, in Bryan at the Brazos County Administration Building. With copies of the Lawyer’s Creed in hand, participants remind themselves that they can “zealously represent the interests of our clients without tearing each other apart,” consider what they can and should accomplish as attorneys, and refresh their dedication to the pursuit of justice.

Typically, Phelps and Banks—who have become close friends—try to have Atticus Finch Day on Harper Lee’s April 28 birthday. They bumped it this year to accommodate guest speaker John Raley, a partner in the Houston firm Raley & Bowick, who took on the pro bono case to exonerate wrongfully imprisoned Michael Morton.

“John Raley … fought like hell for years, won Michael Morton’s exoneration and freedom, and corrected a horrible and shameful injustice,” said Phelps. “If there is a better example of what Atticus Finch Day is all about, I would be surprised. I contacted Mr. Raley, and he enthusiastically agreed to appear—and in seersucker, no less.”