Clients first

Clients first
March 2017
By Dustin J. Seibert
Chicago Lawyer correspondent

Most law firms look to move from one office to another when they outgrow the one they’re in. Such was the case for Michael Best — but the main difference is the full-service defense firm moved into an office with less space.

The firm previously occupied two floors of Two Prudential Plaza, overlooking Millennium and Maggie Daley Parks. It was locked into that space and had no room to grow, so it traded one pristine view for another by moving to the 32nd floor of the newly opened River Point tower at 444 W. Lake St.

It was a whirlwind move that started at the close of business Dec. 30 and completed 8 a.m. Jan. 2; managing partner Kerryann Haase Minton said they “didn’t miss a beat.” The 26,000-square-foot office is almost 11,000 square feet smaller than the Prudential Plaza space, but will ultimately support the growth of the firm.

“We had zero room to grow and our newest attorneys were working in conference rooms,” Minton said of the old space. “That layout was much less efficient, so when we went to market, we did so with the goal of making things as efficient as possible and to have the ability to grow by 30 percent over five years.”

Between the signing of the lease and the move, Michael Best’s Chicago office grew in staff, diminishing that growth potential in the new office to 25 percent (the firm currently has 76 employees, including both lawyers and other staff members). But the firm has the option to expand to space on the 33rd floor above, which Minton expects to happen as the Chicago office expands.

Clients first

One of the first things you see when exiting the elevator is the 169-year-old firm’s new logo, which went live at the beginning of the year, etched on the wall. The logo is used by all nine Michael Best offices, but the one-floor Chicago office was designed with the late John McHugh in mind. McHugh opened the first Michael Best Chicago office at 135 S. LaSalle St. in 1989.

“His whole philosophy was all about ‘clients first,’” Minton said of McHugh.

That dedication to clients is manifest in the names of the office’s four external conference rooms: Responsiveness, Excellence, Quality and, of course, Clients First.

“We named them so we can remind ourselves and our clients that these are the things most important to us,” Minton said. “Everything we’ve done with the office was with the mind to build a firm with the concept that clients come first.”

The firm saw a drop in staff size in the early 2000s, but has been growing since 2010. Minton credits a “thoughtful growth” trend she and her predecessor Dan Kaufman followed. It’s a focus on growth by adding attorneys who fit in well with the firm’s culture and team focus.

“And, we have a no-jerks policy that we abide by,” Minton said. “I tell every recruit who I meet that if they are a jerk or want to work with a jerk, this is not the place for them.”

Low-ego office

Leaving all that extra square footage in the Two Prudential Plaza office meant that associates and partners alike had to deal with smaller offices. It motivated Michael Best to adhere to an increasingly common trend: uniform office sizes that Minton said everyone has been receptive to.

“We’re very much a low-ego office, so the egalitarian layout was a very good transition for us,” she said. “It was re-energizing in a lot of ways, and everyone was receptive of it. It also makes life a lot easier for recruiting because you don’t have to shift everyone around [for office size seniority].”

The office staff’s sense of togetherness is manifest in the only “art” that’s made it to the walls of the new office to date: a compilation of photos of each staff member in double-sided glass frames. One side of the frame contains a black-and-white casual image of the staffer; the other side a description of their likes that starts with “when I’m not at Michael Best I like to …”

“You learn on a personal level about every person in a way that not only humanizes us to our clients, but to each other so we can learn more about who our colleagues are,” Minton said.

Before the move, Minton conducted a survey through which she learned that the staff approved of building the raw space with lots of glass — both frosted and clear — to bring in natural light. The internal and external windows allow for a flood of light to hit the support staff work stations across the floor from associate offices.

What Michael Best lost in space from the move they gained in style: The floor plan has a curvature that allows for a striking view of the sliding glass doors lined in a row.

“People were used to bigger than our current 135-square-foot offices, so we used sliding doors because it makes for more room inside,” Minton said. “Every office is the exact same size with the exact same furniture.”

The corner offices at Two Prudential Plaza were used for partner offices; in River Point, they’re used for collaborative conference spaces. Those four internal spaces — Teamwork, Integrity, Collegiality and Opportunity — were named as inward-facing messages to describe the collaborative and team-oriented culture of the office.

“We wanted a collaborative space that a lot of firms talk about but we can actually do,” Minton said. “No one works just on his or her own.”

Each of the spaces have television screens, walls that consist of dry-erase paint for writing and some of the best views of Chicago from the office — especially the aptly-named Opportunity room, which has a corner view that captures the vastness of Chicago’s West Side, the Chicago River and Lake Michigan.

When everyone is working dutifully for their clients, the staff likes to cut loose with collaborative events, including a recent ping-pong tournament held in the Best Cafe. The tournament took place on a repurposed table in the middle of the café; backlit glass in the cafeteria, which is used for everything from greeting messages to presentation materials when business takes place in the café, was used to keep score.

Minton said the staff has taken well to the new space’s many exciting changes, including what she called the “unexpected star” of the gathering area off of the main conference area: a faucet that delivers hot, cold, filtered and sparkling water on tap.

“People love sparkling water on tap,” Minton said. ”It’s the little things you realize make a difference. I can already tell a difference in terms of our collaboration. It’s us learning more about each other.”