Less paper means more room for Grand Rapids attorneys

December 5, 2011
| By Pete Daly |
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When Bill Hondorp, the head honcho at Smith Haughey Rice & Roegge, was packing up his office last month for the firm’s move to new quarters, he found evidence — a piece of paper — that illustrates how much electronic technology has changed the law business.

After 30 years in the Calder Plaza Building, the firm moved to the 130-year-old Flat Iron Building a couple of blocks south at the intersection of Monroe Center and Ottawa Avenue.

“Actually, we’re moving into less space. That sounds silly because we’ve added five lawyers this year. But the way the law business is now, you don’t need as much space,” said Hondorp, 62, the firm’s managing partner.

That piece of paper was a 1974 memo he had written for the firm’s attorneys detailing changes in state law regarding slip-and-fall litigation. At the time, Hondorp was working summers as a clerk. He officially joined the firm full time in 1975 after graduation from law school.

A clerk writing a memo like that today would distribute it via e-mail, and he or she might never keep a paper version of it, so it probably wouldn’t surface unexpectedly 37 years later.

Hondorp said younger attorneys today don’t require as much staff as the older attorneys because most of their work is done on laptops or PCs — “and we don’t need as many staff people to help them work,” he added.

“With technology, we don’t need the vast libraries we’ve had,” said Hondorp. “We don’t need to have the huge, huge file storage that we had at our firm here for years.”

“(Technology) has really helped us save money — we can lease less space,” added Hondorp.

Smith Haughey Rice & Roegge is the primary tenant in the newly renovated office space in the Flat Iron Building at 100 Monroe Center. Its 80 Grand Rapids employees (counting attorneys and administrative staff) occupy a small part of the first floor and all of the second, third and fourth floors. The firm’s other locations in Traverse City and Ann Arbor bring its total number of employees to about 120: 85 lawyers and about 35 or so support staff.

The Flat Iron Building is a nationally registered historic landmark building that was built around 1860 and is the oldest building on Monroe Center — and one of the oldest in Grand Rapids, if not the oldest. In 2009, Locus Development bought the Flat Iron and the next two buildings in line with it: the Herkner and Groskopf buildings. All are believed to date to the 1860s, and although contiguous, they were separate buildings, with the floors of each at a slightly different height than the others.

The ground floor of the pointed “prow” of the Flat Iron was last occupied by a deli business, Blake’s Turkey Shoppe. Groskopf’s Fine Luggage and Gifts still occupies the ground floor of the Groskopf building, and the Cinco de Mayo Mexican restaurant has the ground floor of the Herkner building, formerly occupied by the Herkner jewelry store.

The floors above Cinco De Mayo and Groskopf’s had apparently not been used since the 1940s, while the upper floors in the Flat Iron had seen some sporadic use as office space over the years.

Locus launched a $4.5 million renovation project to convert the three building interiors into one, now comprising about 32,000 square feet of office space on the second through fourth floors, all of which is now leased by Smith Haughey Rice & Roegge. There is also a rooftop deck that is part of the law firm’s leased space, used for entertaining clients in good weather.

Locus hired Orion Construction to manage the core and shell project, which was designed by Cornerstone Architects. Once that was completed early this summer, the law firm hired Design Plus architects and Wolverine Construction for the interior build-out.

Hondorp said the rooftop deck is unique in that neighborhood, which is virtually the epicenter of downtown Grand Rapids. “We’ve got incredible views,” he said.

The exteriors of all three buildings have been renovated in their original styles, in accordance with the Historic Preservation regulations.

The office build-out and renovation combines modern design, furnishings and lighting with the exposed brick and timbers of the old building. The resulting loft-style workspace is a major change from the conventional office space the law firm had at the Calder Plaza Building.

When asked why the firm decided to move, Hondorp said that when the lease at Calder Plaza neared the end of its term, management decided to appoint a committee to look into the pros and cons of moving.

“We just decided, let’s see what’s available,” he said. But they also decided up front to remain in downtown Grand Rapids “because we are committed to downtown,” and also because that’s where the courts and many of the firm’s clients are.

The age of the buildings is dramatically revealed by two of the walls inside the law firm: Renovation uncovered two painted advertisements on what had once obviously been exterior wall surfaces. One of the buildings — or perhaps another near it — was once a drug store.

Hondorp mentioned another change at law firms over the years. He said when he started his career in 1975, client meetings were typically held in the attorney’s office.

“Now, the way we do business has changed totally,” said Hondorp “We have many more conference rooms in our new building, but our offices are smaller because we have our client meetings in conference rooms now.”

Three of those conference rooms are spectacular. They are in the prow of the Flat Iron with large windows overlooking the downtown streets, just as they always have.

Lisa Young is the law firm’s marketing director and also served on its interior design committee in the conversion. She said the design was intended to qualify for a LEED Silver certification — perhaps even Gold.

“As far as my research shows, we are the only law firm in the nation to renovate a historic landmark building” with an interior build-out aimed at a LEED certification. “We are pretty proud we were able to do that.”

One of the major challenges in the project was the fact that there was no elevator in any of the three buildings, which Young believes is the overall reason for such little use of the upper floors over the last 70 years or more. Construction of an elevator shaft in buildings that old is “very expensive,” she said, and is further complicated by Historic Preservation guidelines.

The Grand Rapids Downtown Development Authority awarded Locus Development three $75,000 Building Reuse and Incentive Program grants to help with the renovation.

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