Where power & The Firm reside
CRAZY QUILT - Tanya T. Lara () - April 3, 2011 - 12:00am

When asked how much the brand-new building of CVC Law cost, founder and lawyer Pancho Villaraza said with a poker face, “It cost us a few zillions.”

Naturally, I had to clarify if a “zillion” was more expensive than a “gazillion.” He just laughed — and took the fifth.  

The interest in the new building of The Firm is quite expected. Media gave CVC Law the moniker “The Firm” during the early years of President Gloria Arroyo for representing her. The term alluded, of course, to the John Grisham book and Tom Cruise movie about a law firm representing money-laundering, murdering mobsters.

Prior to having its own building, The Firm held offices at the LTA Building on Perea St. in Makati, which was coincidentally owned by the family of Mike Arroyo. But the law firm moved there in 1982, when LTA was just newly constructed. Their first office was actually at the APMC Building on Amorsolo St. in Makati. They had a staff of four non-legals and five partners, and in their second year, their office burned down.

That’s when they transferred to LTA Building, where they stayed for the next 28 years…until last year when construction of their own building was finished.  

The Firm was founded in 1980 by five young lawyers —Tony Carpio (now a Supreme Court associate justice), Pancho Villaraza, Tommy Rossell (the three were UP Sigma Rho brothers), Romy Barza and Nonong Cruz. Later, it would be renamed CVC Law — Carpio, Villaraza, and Cruz — and later, with much derision from the media, The Firm.

Where lawyers relax: The Rainmakers Lounge, operated by Gaita Fores’s Cibo, at The Firm. The drinks at the bar have names after law-related movies, like Runaway Jury, The Prosecutor, and The Verdict. Photos by WALTER BOLLOZOS

This law firm has now accepted this name with grace and a sense of humor. 

“It stuck,” says Villaraza shrugging.

In the reception lobby the name is displayed prominently: The Firm right after CVC Law. In fact, BDO bank, which leases the ground floor, calls this branch BDO-The Firm branch.

Also on the façade is a bronze statue of Lady Justice by Jose Mendoza, the sculptor who also did the Gabriela Silang monument on Makati Avenue. Villaraza explains, “She’s the goddess of justice, which originated from the Greeks 3,000 years ago. It’s been replicated over the centuries and it’s still the symbol of justice today. She’s holding a scale and she’s blindfolded to mean that she is fair. In some cases, her sword’s tip is pointing up, but we intentionally had her point the sword to the street because she’s ready to strike whoever is guilty.”

Not many law firms have their own buildings — though some of the bigger ones have naming rights — and Villaraza proudly says that this 12-story building with its own helipad is a smart building.

He wanted both function and form. The Firm is WiFi-enabled from the helipad down to the fifth level of the basement parking. All lawyers — about 80, 70 percent women and with an average age of 32 — are connected electronically.

“Wherever you are in the world, if I call your local and you don’t pick up, it goes straight to your BlackBerry. From abroad, you can call the office and it’s like a local call.”

Yes, they had to consult various consultants when they built the office including, says Villaraza with a wink, “The KGB, Pentagon and Mossad.”

Make like Boston Legal: One of the open decks at the Rainmakers Lounge

What does the building say of The Firm? “Don’t mess with us,” says Villaraza. He wanted the building to exude power. After all, this was The Firm.

The interior designers of the building found this out after their first concept was turned down. Architect Edwin Gumila says, “It was intimidating at first, considering the stature of the name partners.  However, as we interacted with them, our work became easier for us since they gave specific requirements and were quite definite with what they wanted and needed.   It was an enjoyable experience dealing with a group of down-to-earth, witty and intelligent people.”

Edwin worked with his wife, interior designer Jecelyn Gumila, and they submitted their first a proposal for the lobby. “Like most clients, they wanted something elegant and sophisticated,”says Edwin.

So the first scheme was very Zen-like, simple, light and minimal. That might have worked if they were after “relaxing,” but Villaraza wanted people to “be afraid, to be very afraid.”

So they changed the design— still elegant but more impactful. In the lobby, they used black granite and onyx, that wonderful translucent stone, and a lot of cherry wood. And Lady Justice was right outside, ready to strike.  

Atty. Villaraza was a happy man.

Another John Grisham book is called The Rainmaker. Pancho Villaraza explains, “Rainmaker is a term used by American lawyers to describe lawyers who

bring solutions to their clients’ problems, in effect ending their clients’ drought.”

Ready to strike: Lady Justice guards The Firm.

Rainmakers Lounge is the name of The Firm’s restaurant, which is operated by Gaita Fores’s Cibo. All the décor here are antique pieces, such as garments and necklaces, worn by the Bilaan tribe of North Cotabato when they do their rain dance. These were all sourced by Jecelyn Gumila. 

Pointing out a necklace made of crocodile teeth, Villaraza says, “You know, that used to be a congressman.”

The accessories on the walls and tables may be very local, but if you happen to look up from your aubergine leather seat, you will notice that the chandeliers are made of glass —Murano glass lighting up the whole space and looking like drops of rain.

Rainmakers also has open decks outside with oversized Deddon seating. The idea there was to provide a space for lawyers to relax at the end of the day or to organize their thoughts.

“Just like on Boston Legal when they smoke their cigar on the balcony,” says CVC Law junior partner Divine Pedrosa.

It’s not uncommon for a lawyer to be sitting outside on the deck nursing “The Prosecutor,” which is champagne blended with lychees and ginger. You see, the cocktails at the Rainmakers Lounge are named after law movies like The Verdict, which is vodka with coffee; A Few Good Men, vodka with lychees; and Devil’s Advocate, again, vodka with Choc-Nut and Jack Daniels; and Runaway Jury, which is tequila with honey and lime juice.  

War room: The boardroom is hi-tech with hidden microphones, German lighting and Italian chairs. “We were very particular with the quality of the furnishings.”

On one wall of the lounge are black-and-white pictures taken by Neal Oshima of the lawyers and the non-legals working at The Firm. One picture caught my eye. It is a group of young people, their backs to the camera, and seemingly about to jump.

Every year, the firm hires about 10 or 12 underbars, lawyers who are just waiting for the bar results, and they spend one weekend in Villaraza’s vacation house in Tali, Batangas. Everyone who is there for the weekend is expected to jump off a cliff and into the water where boats, floats and life vests await. The cliff jump has three levels with the highest point approximating a two-story building.

“It is not required, but it is hoped that everybody would jump,” says junior partner Franchette M. Acosta.

There hasn’t been a weekend that somebody didn’t jump. There has been a weekend, however, when a lawyer spent two hours on the lowest level of the cliff, mustering up the courage to jump.

When I ask Villaraza the rationale behind this exercise, he says, “If they succeed in jumping, they will come back, and it’s also to release the tension. I’ve jumped many times myself. The tradition started when the house was built in 1997.”

If there are two spaces in The Firm that show the lawyers’ sense of humor, it is the gym and the board room.

The gym is called “Firmness First.” One side overlooks sweeping vistas of Taguig and Makati, another side is a wall covered in graphics depicting silhouettes of very fat people on a bike, stretching, lifting weights.

Firmness First: A devout gym rat, Villaraza had a gym constructed at the top floor with silhouettes of overweight people exercising.

Villaraza says, “I asked the partners to pose and this was the result. If they lose weight, we will adjust the graphics.” Villaraza himself is a devout gym rat. He goes to the gym every day before going to work.

The board room, called En Banc or when the justices of the Supreme Court rule together, is truly state-of-the-art. It has hidden microphones every 1.5 meters, the stone used is granite from Norway, and the wood is cherry.

“We didn’t want anything made in China,” he says. Around the rectangular table are 24 chairs by Antonio Citterio, which spring back to their original height once you get up, and at the head of the table is Villaraza’s chair. You know it’s his place because there’s a gavel right in front.   

“When they’re all talking at the same time, I pound the gavel,” he says. “If they don’t stop, I just throw it at them.”

What did he say at the outset? “Be afraid, be very afraid.”

Or simply, when the boss is here, just shut the hell up.

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