A Gilded Age heritage

November 2016
By Dustin J. Seibert
Chicago Lawyer correspondent

For many law firms, growth dictates the move from one office space to another, larger one. In the case of Grund & Leavitt, it’s the office space that dictates the firm’s growth.

That dynamic is attributed to the sheer uniqueness of the family law firm’s 812 N. Dearborn St. office: It comprises all four floors of a Gilded Age mansion and official Chicago historical landmark.

Built in 1897 as part of a series of homes erected following the Great Chicago Fire in 1871, the mansion makes the law office distinct in many ways from its downtown, high-rise brethren — from its ground-floor entrance to easy Gold Coast parking to the water fountain and lion statues that greet visitors at the main entrance.

“Many of our clients have sizable marital estates and they love coming here because it’s secluded from the tumult of the Loop and affords them a sense of privacy that they relish,” said firm founder David Grund. “There’s so much hustle-bustle with traffic and security, it takes clients 15 minutes just to get through the lobby of their firm’s office building once they walk into the building.”

Inspiration from a hero

Grund & Leavitt is the latest iteration of a practice that Grund started in 1972 and which underwent a series of mergers throughout the years. It took on its current name in 2003 when Marvin Leavitt, who retired as a Cook County circuit judge after a two-year stint as a 1st District Appellate Court justice, partnered with Grund. The merger resulted in a substantial increase of appellate work.

When Grund and his wife Rachel were looking for new office space at the end of the 1990s, he did so thinking about the late Melvin Belli, the California-based attorney best known for representing a host of celebrities and jet-setters.

Known as “The King of Torts,” Belli was Grund’s law school hero; he sought to emulate Belli’s turn-of-the-century brownstone office in San Francisco.

“I so admired him and the way that he had practiced law out of his brownstone that our search [for an office] was with the intention on emulating that,” Grund said.

The couple purchased the North Dearborn Street property — which for years housed the anti-rabies Chicago Pasteur Institute — and completely gutted and restored it to maintain the Victorian-Era feel of the original late 19th century building.

Among the renovations were a steel-reinforced foundation, converting the existing fireplaces from wood-burning to gas and replacing the stairwell at the entrance with a disability-friendly ramp.

The office’s crowning achievement is the old-world library just outside of the reception area on the first floor that serves as the firm’s main conference room. The warm, anachronistic space is marked by filled bookshelves lining the walls and dark woods covering the table, panels and door, and for its windows facing Dearborn.

The restoration took about a year before the firm’s employees were able to move into the building in 1999. Because the restoration was incomplete, the firm temporarily housed its entire operation on the third floor as the first and second floors were built out.

Grund said the project couldn’t have been completed without the dedication of his wife.

“She was instrumental in its design and construction and was literally here on a daily basis for almost a year, often without access to a restroom before one was built,” Grund said.

Rachel Grund and Leavitt’s wife, Susan Karkomi, who both sit on the Women’s Board of the Museum of Contemporary Art, are also instrumental in the placement of the art pieces that hang on the wall and sit on tables throughout the office.

In 2007, Grund & Leavitt added 4,000 additional square feet by converting the building’s backyard into a contemporary space, bringing the firm’s total square footage to just over 10,000. The expansion allowed for additional associate offices and space for a modern kitchen, among other things.

“Blending the old and new allowed us to have the best of both worlds,” Grund said. “Everything in this building is technologically up to date, but it retains the look and feel of an older building from the outside. It was a beautiful transition.”

The Gold Coast difference

In addition to an added degree of discretion, the firm benefits from being away from the Loop because of the ease of parking and the accessibility of Gold Coast and Magnificent Mile shopping and restaurants for clients, Grund said.

He prefers to take clients to his spacious personal office on the top floor. Full of artwork representing his hobbies and interests, including horses and horse racing, the office contains a separate space where he can meet with clients.

“During the cold winter months, we’ll turn on the fireplace and play music, which helps put our clients at ease,” Grund said. “It’s a moment of anxiety, fear, frustration and anger for clients involved in a divorce, so we try to be as sympathetic as possible.”

Grund & Leavitt opened a Highland Park office in 2005, which handles some of the firm’s growth. As of now, the home office is filled to capacity with 20 attorneys and 14 staff members.

Grund admits to spending years trying to purchase the location next door, the Alliance Française de Chicago at 810 N. Dearborn St., to no avail. But even if he’s never successful in that acquisition, Grund will stay in his Victorian era office as long as he’s practicing law.

“I’m not going anywhere, and if it means not expanding, it’s OK with me,” Grund said. “They’re going to have to pry me from my desk in this building.”

djohnseib@hotmail.com