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City attorneys could suffer from separation anxiety

(File photo by Kevin Harnack)

(File photo by Kevin Harnack)

Before Milwaukee City Hall’s failing foundation added another wrinkle to the exile of the Office of the City Attorney, some aldermen were pushing for the former law library to include a public meeting space.

Alderman Robert Bauman, chairman of the city’s Capital Improvements Committee, said Monday that the city attorney’s renovation plans could be on hold for a couple of years, based on the news that foundation repairs could force the Legislative Research Bureau’s library to move and that the former law library would be the collection’s logical new home. That also puts a hold on the fight over whether the former law library should be rebuilt as a sometimes-open-to-the-public space.

Bauman and Alderman Nik Kovac, a CIC member, have pushed for the public space, saying the idea makes sense because the city attorney no longer has a substantial paper library. But City Attorney Grant Langley has said he needs all available space on the eighth floor for attorney offices and conference space, so there is no room for the public.

Bauman often points to conference space at Foley & Lardner LLP’s downtown Milwaukee office as an example of how public space can be an asset in a private office.

But if or when that debate resumes, Pat Algiers, a consultant with Milwaukee-based Chemistry in Place, said decision-makers should keep security in mind.

Algiers, who is not involved in the City Hall debate, designs offices across the country for Quarles & Brady LLP.

Algiers said Quarles & Brady’s Milwaukee office also has public meeting space, but that area is entirely separate from the firm’s private offices. The firm has 186,000 square feet spread over eight floors, she said, one of which is dedicated to conference rooms and is accessible to the public.

Visitors, even clients, she said, meet with attorneys on that public floor and never stray into the private areas.

That prevents visitors from seeing case files and work papers they should’t have access to, she said, and ensures client confidentially is not breached.

If the public space and private space must be on the same floor, such as is contemplated in the City Hall project, Algiers said, security must be kept in mind.

“I would put the public space as close to the entry door as possible,” she said.

But City Hall’s former law library is at the narrow end of the triangle-shaped building, and to reach it, a visitor would have to walk through office space.

Milwaukee’s city attorney has objected to a proposed compromise that some of his attorneys or support staff remain in the Frank P. Zeidler Municipal Building next door to City Hall. He has claimed that could disrupt the office’s efficiency.

Algiers agreed.

When large firms are split, she said, attorneys in each practice area are kept together. Sometimes the split comes from housing human resources or information technology departments away from the attorneys.

But the city, which has 39 attorneys, is not equivalent to a large firm, she said.

The city attorney’s office relies on the city’s IT and HR departments, which are already housed in other areas of the city’s buildings.

Splitting up a firm the size of the city attorney’s office would not be a wise move, she said. It would be more difficult to collaborate and it could undermine camaraderie among coworkers.

“An office of that size,” Algiers said, “I would do everything possible to keep it together.”

About Beth Kevit

Beth Kevit is the Milwaukee city beat reporter and also covers real estate. She can be reached at [email protected] or 414-225-1820.

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