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.”