Reader Mail – Personalizing an Office

How to Personalize Your Office | CorporetteWhat is the best way to personalize your office?  We love reader mail, and we’re using our lack of ideas for polls to catch up answering some… (Update: check out some of our more recent posts on office decor!)

I’m a new associate in BigLaw. My very experienced assistant tells me I need to put some personal things in my office. Right now there is a single framed print and that’s it. My diplomas and bar admission are getting framed, so they’ll go up soon. Books are all firm-issued. But there’s a large (5 foot wide?) space between my desk and the door. What goes there?? A small sofa or cushy chair?? Coat rack? Something else? Nothing? It would be nice to have something to nap on for an all nighter but the guys don’t have those…

What about photos? Plants? Other?

There aren’t a lot of women at my firm (surprise!), so I can’t really copy what they did.  Help is appreciated!

This can be a tricky subject for anyone — we all know that guy who has far too many toys in his office.  We’re going to go out on a limb and say that as long as you keep it professional, it doesn’t really matter how personal it is.  You can personalize your office, obviously, in a variety of ways.  Our thoughts, after the jump:

There are big ways you can personalize your office:

Extra furniture.  For our $.02, we say if you have room for a couch, go for one — even if it’s just one of the cheaper ones Ikea has to offer.  First, now you have a welcoming place for meetings in your office; second, when you’ve been working at the office for 20+ hours you get REALLY sick of your desk chair and need someplace else to work that’s comfortable.

Rugs. We’re not a huge fan of rugs — they always seem to make people trip — but you may want to consider a floorcloth or a floor mat.

Lamps. We know a number of people who got different lamps for their office — it certainly adds a touch of elegance to the room, plus then they don’t have to use overhead lighting.

Plants. Every year for your birthday, ask your family and/or your significant other to send a plant instead of flowers.  Yes, it’s something to water and take care of, but having something alive and green tends to cheer you up.  Flowers are another great way — we once knew a lawyer who would buy flowers every week for his office.  It added a lot of color and vibrance to his office.

Paintings. Whatever you do, get the painting framed — we once knew someone who had a poster taped to her wall.  It looked like the kind of thing that she’d had with her through college and law school — tattered edges and such — but it always struck us as odd.  If you DO have something sentimental that you’d like to have in your office — maybe it’s ugly or in bad shape or an “inside joke” that doesn’t look like a normal painting — put it where you will be the primary person looking at it: the wall behind where your visitors would sit (which also is hopefully a wall that isn’t visible from the hall).

– Photos. This is another way to personalize your office, definitely, but be very careful what you display.  A picture of you and your friends on Spring Break could be interpreted by someone who dislikes you as “party girl.”  Not all innocent photos are great, either — a picture of you and your parents at your graduation, or of you and your husband at your wedding, could prevent others from seeing you as a woman to be reckoned with. (See our updated thoughts on this, below.)

There are smaller ways you can personalize it, also, of course — pushpins and paperclip holders and pencil holders and more.

Finally, there are some functional ways to personalize your office that probably SHOULDN’T be displayed, but will make you much more comfortable in it.  For example:  If you have space behind a door, consider getting a full-length mirror.  We noticed an older male colleague had one, and so we spent the $10 at BB&B and got one — $10 we’ve never regretted.  We can’t tell you how many times we’ve been saved from going to a meeting with our skirt twisted funnily.  Other things we’d recommend as functional life-savers include a shoe rack for beneath your desk, and a refrigerator.

Jan. 2010 Update: This author has thought a lot about this post since my own wedding — the suggestion that one shouldn’t display a wedding photo in your office created quite a stir from the commenters. A) Display it if you want to. It’s kind of like Facebook privacy settings — it’s how much you want to reveal about yourself to the people you work with. I don’t plan to hang up a huge picture of us on the wall, but when I get around to it I fully intend to add some of our framed wedding pictures to a shelf in my office that faces my desk (not outwards). And/or, perhaps, create a collage for a mousepad. (I’m a bit behind on the wedding photo tasks, so right now the pics are limited to the screensaver and background screen image.) B) I laugh at the thought that I wanted to be “soft and romantic” on the wedding day (see my comment below) — particularly during the cocktail hour, I felt more like a manager than anything else, trying to arrange various group pictures. YOU, come here, picture time! GRANDMA, SMILE! Brother, get me FOOD! (Anyway….)


  1. Anonymous :

    Any recommendations for a good small couch or reading chair?

  2. I . . . am not sure I want to keep the good opinion of anyone who thinks displaying a wedding photo means I’m not a woman to be reckoned with.

  3. While many of these suggestions are good, I have to disagree with your advice about wedding photos. I don’t believe that showing evidence of your wedding/marriage will cause people to question your authority. Is this working off the assumption that single women are seen as more powerful because they’re not under the thumb of a man? That is, if not an outdated idea, at the least an idea that we shouldn’t accept and go along with. We all (hopefully) have family and loved ones, and no one should be ashamed of having a picture of them in their office.

  4. If the reader works in BigLaw, her office probably hires a person or service to provide and maintain the plants around the office. Find out who it is, and ask for a nice tall green leafy plant to put in a corner. It softens up an otherwise stark office, and has the benefit of filtering that stuffy old-building air. I think I have a cornstalk dracaena in my office.

  5. punk rock tax attorney :

    What kind of photos should we display? I can see why you might not want the spring break photos or one of your parents, but what’s wrong with the wedding photo? Should you not have a photo of yourself and your spouse/partner at all, or is there something about a wedding photo that’s particularly bad? Granted, I work at a little boutique firm with a handful of fellow weirdo/geek types, so no one bats an eyelash at my Harvey Birdman: Attorney at Law action figures (among others), Hello Kitty Pez dispenser, or Justice Scalia bobblehead, so maybe I don’t understand what flies and what doesn’t in the “real” corporate world. ;)

  6. I agree a picture of you with your parents is a bad call, as it looks pretty juvenile, but wedding photos are very common. On the other hand, I would certainly think twice about bringing in furniture if other associates don’t have anything other than the standard office issue. At least in my firm, that’s only something partners do — to bring in furniture as a young associate might seem presumptuous.

  7. Hi all — re wedding photos… we seem to have ignited another controversy! We stand by our original posting, but a few points to clarify our position:

    a) We’ve never worked with anyone more senior and female who displayed wedding photos

    b) If we had to work with someone who had wedding photos in her office — we’re talking framed, not screensaver variety — and we happened to hate her, then we would hate, hate, hate her wedding photos especially. She’s all happy and blushing and… who needs that? Gag.

    c) Finally: Full disclosure here: the author of the post (and of this comment) is preparing for a wedding in a few months. On the day of my wedding, and in my photos, I plan to look soft, romantic, glamorous, loving — and to fully be emotional and sentimental and maudlin. None of those qualities are especially things that would HELP me at the office, and they’re certainly not qualities I would want everyone (not just friends) to see. To me, though, the wedding is an intensely personal rite — I’m only inviting best friends and family — and it might be different if I were one of those people who invites 400 people including clients.

    So, take it with a grain of salt… but that’s my $.02.

  8. Funny, I’ve rarely worked for a more senior married female who didn’t have a wedding photo on display. Even many male partners at my office display wedding photos–including some sepia-esque dreams from the 1970s. I’ve never heard of being encouraged to feel ashamed about how one looks in one’s wedding pictures, and I think it’s silly. I think it would be dumb to have a picture of you and the partner kissing, perhaps, and maybe a picture during a religious ceremony doesn’t need to be at the office, but a nice picture of my husband and me smiling for the camera somehow makes me overly emotional and soft? Girl, please.

    For other personalization options, if you have a bulletin board you can hang up an interesting calendar. And I am constantly amazed by how many people who stop by my office comment on how much they love a colorful spiral notepad I have on my desk. It’s a notepad! But it’s colorful, so I guess that makes it standout among the piles of (white) papers.

  9. p.s. Good luck with the wedding planning! I did my wedding planning while studying for the bar, and I have no idea how I would have done it while having a real job.

  10. Floorcloths are a great way to add a distinctive touch to any office. A traditional Mariner’s Compass or an Antique Tile design can be a dignified way to introduce clients to your office space. Be sure that your floorcloth is made using heavyweight (at least 18 oz.) canvas and that it has a neat, preferably sewn, hem to ensure long wear.

  11. Anonymous :

    I work at a large firm in the South, and I’m pretty sure that everyone who’s married has a wedding picture somewhere in his or her office… to the point that I might find it strange if someone didn’t. Men frequently have up a bridal portrait of their wife (see above, re: South), women generally have a photo of the the bride and groom together. When you get your wedding pictures done, you’ll find that there’s a spectrum — some of them are going to be all romantic and soft-lit, such that you wouldn’t want to put them in the office, but some of them are just going to be of two happy people standing next to each other. If it’s appropriate for the newspaper announcement, it’s entirely appropriate for the office.

  12. Ditto, Jay – many if not all of the more senior female (and male, for that matter) associates and partners here have a wedding picture in their office. Many also have photos of their children prominently displayed.

    If you’re working at a firm where the image of someone on their wedding day is viewed as “weak,” perhaps you should reevaluate!

  13. Clarification aside, I only know a few married people in my firm (male and female, associates and partners) that don’t have a wedding picture. In fact, the higher up people get, the more frames seem to end up taking over the office as they end up with a variety of kid pictures at many ages/activities, vacations, etc.

    However, nothing overly goopy – kiss, first dance, during vows/prayers, cake, etc – just either a cute candid (avoid any pics with anything other than champagne glasses in your hands, though) or a simple professional shot.

    And don’t place any pictures in an overt location – either a shelf or windowsill behind your desk, or on the “far” side of where visitors sit in your office. Then it’s visible to those who care to look (especially you), but not getting in the way.

  14. I do not, and would not, keep personal photos in my office. Here’s one reason: you’re there to do work, not gaze longingly at your spouse, children, pets, or your pretty, pretty princess wedding dress. I just don’t think it demonstrates professionalism. The only possible exception I could think of would be photos related to some professional or personal accomplishment, e.g., shaking hands with a judge or politico, or possibly finishing a marathon or something else that demonstrates your personal qualities, such as commitment or dedication, that correlate positively to your career.

    Second, I think the less the people who come into my office know about my personal life, the better.

  15. love those pushpins: thanks for the link! disagree re: wedding photos: i actually got flack from a senior female partner for not bringing in a wedding photo w/in 5 months of my wedding. agree to keep it to just one photo though, and let it not be an overly goopy/smoochy one.

  16. I have a dad who loves to buy me legal-themed things for my office (since I’m a lawyer), and I’ve gotten dozens of comments on a glass paperweight that has scales of justice etched in to it. I also have a nice small bronze Ganesh statute that I got in India that makes me happy (even if no one else notices it).

  17. I’d go with a nice armchair/occasional chair and floorlamp combo (think Pottery Barn) – makes for a nice reading space. Also try the Container Store for unique office supplies for a cohesive feel.

  18. What about pictures of kids? (I have one already and another on the way.) When I summered at the firm I’ll be joining, I noticed that the male partners and associates who had children displayed one or two framed pictures on their desks. The few women partners and associates didn’t have children, so I couldn’t judge what the norm was amongst the women. Would displaying a picture of my children affect how people perceive my commitment and ability to do work? On the other hand, would I seem cold if I didn’t display a picture of my children? (Yes, they know that I’m a mom and hired me anyway.)

  19. Anonymous :

    My favorite office personalization is my desk set. It’s a Limoges set from my grandmother’s house. I like how it is femine and cohesive, but not girly or flashy. I also have a desk clock that my parents gave me upon passing the bar.

    One wedding photo — it’s not more joyous than mushy — my husband and I are laughing in it.

  20. Re: photos – it strikes me that people are worrying WAY to much over something so trivial. Unless it is an extremely inappropriate spring break type photo (and maybe not even then), I seriously doubt a partner in a biglaw office could tell you what photos any associate has in his or her office. The only non-firm people in my office are summer associates and interviewees – people who, if they even notice, would probably appreciate that you can be a wife/ mother and still work in biglaw.
    Ultimately, it is your office and you spend way more time there then anyone else, and the photos should be of what you want to look at.

  21. One of the female partners I worked with during my summer had the most beautiful bone china coffee cups. She called it a bit of gracious living in the workplace. They look much nicer sitting on your desk than a far side mug and gives a hint of personal style. A stylish iPod docking station is also a must have .
    Also a tip for the bride to be, why can’t you have your wedding photographer take some ” work appropriate” wedding pictures with an eye to having one in the office in a modest, but classy frame. I like seeing family pictures in offices because I think it’s nice to show clients and colleagues you are more than just an unfeeling corporate suit.

  22. There’s a site called that has some great lawyer-themed gifts. Some are based on English law but many would work anywhere. Recommend a look!

  23. I keep quite a few pictures of my three teenage sons in my office. I had one client comment that if I can handle them, he knew I could handle everything.

    Also, one benefit of a comfortable side chair, it invites people in to talk. It is amazing how much face-time I have gotten with seniors just because I have this wonderfully comfortable leather chair in my office. It is retreat place for me to sit and read and resist the interruptions of my phone and email for a few minutes.

  24. Also, maybe I am being overly sensitive, but I always think that displays of weddings and kids could be seen as rubbing it in the face of co-workers without heterosexual weddings and kids. And, I think I would be genuinely creeped out if I ever saw a “bride” photo in some man’s office. I’ve heard about that Southern tradition and I just can’t think of anything more ….objectifying?

    what about your child’s artwork? I think that’s a no-no as well, but I’ve seen a few people displaying their child’s “talent.”

  25. Anonymous :

    I don’t think you should be ashamed of your marriage or family, or hide them just because you’re worried about offending someone at the office. (And if they are that sensitive I can’t imagine how they manage outside of the office) However, I think keeping the number of photos small and relatively inconspicuous is best. That way it’s just for you, as it should be, and won’t come off as a trophy gallery…

  26. In my first office (I’m in-house now and don’t have to worry about this stuff thank goodness) my “personalization” was a picture of my friends and I on graduation day in our caps and gowns, and a “shoe a day” calender that a friend had gotten me as a gag gift. I had a small picture of me and hubby but it was on my side of the desk hidden by the monitor (this was before flat screens, LOL).

    Senior partners (male and female!) used to stop by to see what the shoe was for the day – it was a great conversation piece.

    And for my 2 cents, no way on earth I would put up a picture of my finishing a marathon, even if I came in sub-3. Sweaty exhausted grossness, anyone? Ew.

  27. I know this is an old post, but I wanted to comment about the wedding photo thing. My executive-level girlfriends and I have all theorized that appropriateness of wedding photos in an office (or a home, for that matter) is related to how long ago you got married. Once you’ve been married more than 5 years, the photos start looking a little dated; past 10 years, it’s probably not appropriate any more. If you’ve been married for some time and the only nice photo you have to display of yourself and your spouse is a wedding photo, it’s time to get some nice portraits professionally done and use those instead. I don’t mind seeing wedding photos of relative newlyweds but it does seem odd to me when I see wedding photos in offices of women who have been married for 15 years and have 2 kids almost old enough for high school. Surely there are some more appropriate family portraits that have been taken in the interim? Also, let’s not forget age can be a liability in the workplace and older wedding photos do allow people to guess your age based on the style of your wedding clothing. I also have to say that I have seen some borderline-inappropriate wedding photos in offices – big smooches, the pulling off of the garter, etc. A nice posed full-length 0r waist-up shot is probably the way to go if you go this route at all.

    I think displaying family photos in an office is great – I really enjoy seeing the families of people I work with. But weddings are something people are really only interested in close to the event. Once your fifth anniversary rolls around, if your marriage has lasted, that’s what you should celebrate, more than your wedding. Put on some nice clothes and get new pictures taken. Later you’ll be glad you did.

  28. To me, it’s the posed stuff that looks cheesy. What about a nice, flattering candid shot of you / your spouse / your children, that might have been taken at the family Thanksgiving dinner, at a party, or while walking in the woods or doing whatever it is that you do as a family? I much prefer that to the posed, cheesy, Olan-Mills soft-focus look.

    • I would never go to Olan Mills or any place like it. Our professionally-taken photographs are exactly what you describe – us doing what we do as a family, either in nature or in our home (we do have a few we took at the photog’s studio, but they have a room, not a backdrop). Every city of any size has a decent photog who can do arty/candid/unique family photos without doing the cheesy “shortest to tallest in front of a marbled background” posed photo. Maybe it’s just where I am, but generally when people have photos in their office it’s the candid-creative variety. This is what I’m talking about, not Olan Mills:

  29. The “bride” photo sounds creepy to me, too.

    As for the child’s artwork – within reason, not plastered all over, but a memento or too — what’s wrong with a handmade ceramic vase or little drawing with a heart that says “I love you Mom”? It’s far more important that my children felt loved when they came to my office, than that I pretended that they didn’t exist because supposedly that “impresses” some people.

    Really, this is time-warp advice. People have families. They love them.

  30. I am surprised that this hasn’t been mentioned… Hang photographs you have taken yourself. I am an internal IT manager for a small law firm, but still have my own office. I enjoy amature photography and have had some of my favorites blown up poster-sized, framed and are now hanging on my walls. I find that they give a strong personalization to my office while displaying some accomplishments and/or hobbies, while refraining from unnecessarily promoting myself – they are not outwardly labeled as being my own. Yet, they inevitably become a conversation piece.

    • anonymous :

      Great idea!

      But p.s. (in a caring, snark-free tone of voice) the word is spelled “amateur”

  31. Go to – huge variety of furniture, good prices and bonus: they’ll ship it to your office for a few bucks.

  32. Don’t know how many people are still reading, but … I get flowering plants shipped to my office every month through the flowering plant subscription services from White Flower Farm and Jackson & Perkins. They last much longer than cut flowers, and the delivery service is very convenient (albeit expensive). It’s incredibly cheerful to have them around, and I get tons of compliments on them from both male and female colleagues.

  33. I love seeing wedding photos of people who have been married 20, 30, 40 + years. Sure, they look dated, but that’s the point; it’s a personal accomplishment to be proud of!
    And I bet most people still relate to themselves as the person in the photo, not a middle-aged person with spreading belly.

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