Shearman & Sterling’s Revamped New York Headquarters Sets New Bar For Legal Workplaces

The carefully preserved travertine walls that adorn the conference center are likely the only element that has remained the same at Shearman & Sterling’s recently revamped global New York headquarters. In partnership with architecture firm Perkins & Will, the vast reimagining of the global law firm’s office at 599 Lexington has given the office a completely new look and feel. Planned pre-COVID-19 pandemic and beginning in 2020, the transformation has focused on future-proofing the 340,000 square-foot space to support and anticipate the needs of tomorrow’s workforce and clients.

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Having been largely remote since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the firm’s personnel returned this year to find their Manhattan headquarters transformed. The previously dim, enclosed offices which came in various sizes determined by seniority have been replaced by glass-fronted, one-size-fits-all suites, rethinking the segregation, exclusivity and hierarchy that were historically commonplace in the legal industry. A simple canteen has become the Sterling Café, complete with bright textural art, cooking stations, salad and breakfast bars, comfortable seating and a cornucopia of fresh and nutritious options – allowing for engaging conversations to take place between the firm’s people and clients. There’s even a wellness complex with an onsite nurse-practitioner, a fitness studio, nap pods and completely touch-free restrooms. In just two years, this nearly 150-year-old law firm has created the office of the future, a concept that’s set to be incorporated into its most recent buildouts across its property portfolio.

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“We need spaces that are simultaneously human-centric and built for a more digitized future. Today’s professionals are hyper aware and focused on relevant issues taking place on a global-scale, outside of their jobs,” says Director of Global Real Estate Arsha Cazazian-Clement, who had a large hand in the redesign. “If you’re going to ask people to come into the office, you have to invest in the space and let them know that they’re your greatest asset,” she added. 

The wellbeing and evolving needs of both employees and clients are at the very heart of the new design. Having become the first global law firm to participate in WELL at scale, committing its 22 offices to pursue WELL certification or WELL ratings, Shearman & Sterling is doing more than just paying lip service to lofty aspirations. The human-centric model — which incorporates design-balance, natural patterns, a customizable light and shade system to align with the body’s circadian rhythms, antibacterial surfaces, enhanced air filtration, air ionization technology, filtered water and sit-stand desks for all — is designed to make staff and clients feel both comfortable and cared for in the workplace. The home-away-from-home atmosphere the team has cultivated compliments the firm’s hybrid work policy of three days in the office and two from home, as well as remote working options for two weeks before Thanksgiving and before the upcoming New Year.

“When a workplace is designed properly, it’s an extension of your home,” says Cazazian-Clement. “This new space allows us to forget the politics of the office and really focus on achieving a work-life integrated model.”

New facilities, including the Shearman Room, an 80,000-square-foot state-of-the-art double-level conference center, are set to benefit the local community and allow for client meetings and events to take place. The firm’s community outreach work — which has ranged from providing pro bono support to managing helplines during the pandemic — will be brought right into the building, allowing for more meaningful, constructive partnerships and aiding the firm in its ambition to help revitalize New York. 

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“This redesign is a physical manifestation of our values in action,” says Executive Director and Chief Operating Officer Kenneth Johnsen. “We’ve taken this approach to support our clients, our people and the communities we live in.”

Sustainability was also at the forefront of the redesign. What was previously a poorly insulated, energy-guzzling space is now on track for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Gold certification. The 599 Lexington space, which has shed five floors is now encased in double-insulated glass and powered by low-voltage recycled ethernet cables. Much of the construction waste and decommissioned furniture has been donated, repurposed or recycled. A light and shade system, which can be incrementally adjusted depending on the weather and time of day, reduces the need for excessive heating and cooling. Meanwhile, sensors — recording everything from temperature to occupancy to air quality — will feed data back to the building’s “brain” to allow for further learning and optimization.

“We wanted the renovation to reflect our investment in our people and community, and we continue to take concrete steps to make a difference,” says Johnsen.  

The new space, which has been internally dubbed “599 Reimagined,” is a continuation of a global investment in the firm’s culture and a commitment to a more connected, inclusive and diverse workforce. There are improved acoustics in the boardroom and a robust art program designed to support emerging and diverse artists around the world. Administrative professionals, who previously worked in a separate office a block away, have been relocated onsite to offices identical to those of attorneys, further driving the message of equity and equality for all. 

“All of our people deserve to feel welcomed and taken care of by the firm,” says Johnsen. 

“The art, lighting, layout and spaces of this rebuild have become the mortar that holds us together, generating excitement to come back to the office and take pride in our firm,” adds Cazazian-Clement.

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