Big-law headhunters create work space that’s both comfortable and high-end modern

Clint Johnson stood in a short hallway at his downtown Johnson Downie firm and pointed all the way to the TV room where staffers go to relax or for informal meetings.

“If he leans forward a little, Marcel can see from his desk, through the corner of Janet’s office and into the family room,” said Johnson of the view from partner Marcel Meijer’s office through the office of his executive co-partner Janet Downie.

It’s all about being connected, from where they sit to whom they can see coming and going and what they do when they end up where they need to be.

Plenty of work gets done in the sleek offices on the 43rd floor of the 609 Main office building, but perhaps even more important work gets done in spaces that may not look like they belong in a corporate setting at all: a sleek modern kitchen, comfortable family room and even a lounge where it looks like they could just as easily host a cocktail party as they might discreetly greet clients.

Johnson and Downie — who run one of the most high-powered legal executive search firms in the country — have just marked the first year in their new offices, a move that came about when they unexpectedly lost their lease in another high-rise just a couple of blocks away at 811 Main.

Floor-to-ceiling windows offer a panoramic view from the conference room where they reflect on the move that ultimately doubled their square footage — from 3,000 to 6,000 square feet — and took their space up a notch in sophistication, building on the modern look created for them by the renowned architecture-design firm Rottet Studio.

“We were so happy with our first space … ,” Johnson said as he described hiring Rottet Studio for both offices. “In that space, we did so much work to move the needle in big law in Texas. … It was natural to take the next step of growing up. This is probably more sophisticated, not that the last one wasn’t. This is probably a little more relaxed, more comfortable in your skin, like how you know yourself a little more when you’re 40 or 50 or 60. This space is a reflection of that.”

The two teamed up 12 years ago to form Johnson Downie, a firm that has grown to become the recruiter of executive-level partners for the world’s top law firms.

As the energy industry grows, so have law firms’ interest in opening offices in the city. From their new offices, Johnson Downie hosts teams of legal executives to interview the candidates it recruits and sometimes even helps the firms set up new offices. In the past decade, it’s placed more than 700 partners in law firms and opened 17 offices for the “who’s who of law offices in Texas,” Johnson said.

Early on, the two had much simpler offices in space they subleased at the Decorative Center of Houston. From there, they leased executive space that was functional but not anyplace they’d bring their high-powered clients. Instead, they’d reserve a private room at a restaurant or a meeting room at a hotel such as the Four Seasons or the Houstonian for their discreet work.

On a trip to New York, the two were discussing office space; they knew they needed a permanent home, and they knew they needed it to look equal to the spaces where their clients worked.

Downie’s son had gone to high school in Houston with the son of Lauren Rottet and mentioned her name. Johnson didn’t know who she was.

But when they got to their appointment, they marveled at their client’s offices.

“It was beautiful; we complemented them and he said, ‘You know, it’s this gal in Houston,” Johnson said. “And then Janet said, ‘I told you so — it’s Lauren Rottet.’”

Both had used interior designers at their own homes, so hiring someone to help with their offices seemed natural. They talked about their space and privacy needs. But they also talked about the need for formal and informal meeting spaces that were both luxurious and comfortable.

In their first experience with Rottet Studio — seven or eight years ago, when they designed Johnson Downie’s 3,000-square-foot office space at 811 Main — they couldn’t believe how nice their offices were. So when they learned they couldn’t renew their lease, they were heartbroken. Still, they knew it was an opportunity to have more space with a few things they really needed.

“We did joke that it was Johnson Downie grown up,” said Lauren Rottet of the second project. “Some of the architectural moves we did in the space are architectural moves I’ve been exploring in my practice for a while. I think that people enjoy a cleaner, fresher, more youthful environment. They don’t need all of that Old World, my-dad’s-stuff.”

Modern décor was chosen for its forward-looking nature and because it helps recruit a new generation of law partners entering the scene.

A welcoming, residential feel begins at the big glass front door: wood flooring inside the offices extends into the hallway, creating a semblance of a front porch, so you know you’ve arrived even as you’re approaching.

Inside, there’s no receptionist desk — if you’re there it’s because you were invited — but instead a lounge area with a marble-covered kitchenlike bar and a seating area. Not only can they meet here for small conversations, but they can host a small group if needed.

The long, Calacatta-encased bar moved here from their previous offices — Downie jokes that she threw herself on it and refused to let them demolish it — and fronts a row of lower cabinets that include a wine cooler and refrigerated drawers full of water and other beverages.

The seating area includes a curved sofa and comfortable chair on a round, custom-made rug, features they upgraded from their earlier offices. Johnson explained that at some point he just topped out on writing checks and told them they needed to curb spending. The result was furniture that was nice — but not as nice as what they have now.

Next to that lounge is a long conference room, filled with a glossy white table and white leather chairs. From this room, Johnson and Downie talk to their clients as if Houston’s downtown is their chess board. In addition to helping them find partners for new or existing offices, they’re often asked by out-of-town firms for their opinion on where to set up shop.

“We’ll go to this window and say, ‘If you’re not going to be in our building, then you probably want to be here, or here,’” Johnson said, pointing to other towering office buildings. “Or we say Skadden and Morgan Lewis are here. Baker Botts is there. Bracewell Andrews Kurth and Mayer Brown are in that building. We give them a sense of the landscape looking out of our window.”

Though Johnson Downie’s offices are meant for business, they’re designed with a residential touch, to put clients at ease as multimillion-dollar decisions are being made. After all, their clientele is based on relationships they’ve built throughout their careers.

“A firm’s leadership team will come here and set up camp, and they’ll have a day or two of interviews — or courting sessions — with several different potential candidates,” Johnson said. “When that leadership team comes back, they know their way around. They know where to go to get a soft drink. It’s like when you have a great party at your house, everyone stands in the kitchen. When those guests come back and you say, ‘You know where everything is, go get a beer.’ We told Lauren that, and she created it.”

In the “back of the house” are roomy offices with big views of Houston. There’s the family room and its TV, sometimes controlled by those who love sports and sometimes by those who love anything else.

There’s what Johnson and Downie refer to as their “family kitchen” — the one they use every day for lunch or snacks. In their earlier offices, it was a private room with a door that was usually closed. Now, though, it’s a showpiece, with bright white modern cabinets and a 3D metallic backsplash so bold that you’ll notice it long before you realize that their marble-topped island is canary yellow. A beautiful chandelier that previously hung in a major space now hangs over the kitchen island.

“The chandelier reminds us of our first home that put Johnson Downie on the map,” said Johnson, just as proud of his kitchen as he is his sparkling conference room.

Although the kitchen was meant to be a place for the staff, plenty of clients wander in, too.

Downie remembers one client who’d resigned from a partner position. He was stressed out and on his way over. “I ordered in some Italian food, and we served ourselves family style and sat here at this island and ate it,” she said.

Rottet’s not surprised — the trend of kitchens as the heart of a home extends into our work spaces, too.

“Before, the kitchen was buried in the back, and now, like in your house, it’s the center of entertainment. We see that across the board,” Rottet said. “It makes sense. How do you get people to relax and communicate and actually sit down and talk? You do it with food, of course. Relax and talk, and pretty soon you’re sharing ideas and collaborating.”


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