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DLA Piper’s new Chicago space could set the template for future offices

DLA Piper’s new Chicago space could set the template for future offices - Photo by Rena Naltsas
By Dustin J. Seibert
Chicago Lawyer correspondent

There’s more at stake with DLA Piper’s new Chicago office than a mere move after a lease expired.

The move to eight floors in 444 W. Lake St. at Wolf Point was a much-needed breath of fresh air for a firm that had spent 30 years at its previous space. But the new space is also expected to serve as a model for several other locations of the multinational firm that will be moving or upgrading their current offices over the next six years or so.

“We made sure to come up with a design that we could replicate,” said David Mendelsohn, managing partner of the Chicago office. “This was designed to be guinea pig and model for the future of DLA spaces.”

Of course, first things first: the Chicago office itself. Thirty years at 203 N. LaSalle St. allowed for plenty of room for improvements that the old office’s layout didn’t permit.

“Given how much the use of law space has changed over the decades, how people look at space differently and how clients view law firms, it was time for us to leave,” Mendelsohn said. “Everything has changed in the profession.”

The partners started searching for a new space about 5½ years ago, eventually choosing from 15 spaces throughout the city that could be ready when the firm’s lease ended in February. Mendelsohn himself took time to tour law firms and other business that had recently moved or upgraded their space.

“It was important for me to learn from the lessons other firms have gone through,” he said. “We quickly figured out light and bright was the way to go. We wanted something that would raise the sprits of people working in the office and was also multifunctional in design.”

Lessons learned

Inspiration was plentiful: DLA Piper integrated a number of changes both unique and increasingly common among law offices; the latter including uniform office sizes and fewer physical barriers separating senior and junior attorneys to create a more collaborative environment.

By moving into the River Point building, which officially opened at the beginning of this year, DLA Piper is also keeping with the trend of establishing businesses in new buildings just off the Chicago River. Adding to the ambiance is the increased foot traffic thanks to the newly finished Chicago Riverwalk.

“Whereas being on LaSalle Street in the heart of the Loop was the place for law firms to be 30 years ago, I don’t think that’s the case anymore,” Mendelsohn said. “Companies in downtown Chicago are spreading out and not as focused on being in the Loop.”

Mendelsohn’s tours of other firms also revealed a sobering truth about the underutilization of conference rooms.

“More lawyers are doing virtual work than ever before,” he said. “With less meetings, these spaces are always empty and feel more like morgues. We decided we would benefit from building space on each floor that people would use regularly.”

The approach to conference room furniture has also changed: The firm has taken a more modular approach to layout, furniture is now on wheels and the traditional long, rectangular conference tables are gone in favor of circular tables.

“The traditional rectangular conference rooms with the boss sitting at the end of the table didn’t really create a psychologically safe environment where people felt they were equal contributors.”

One of the most eye-catching aspect of the new office happens to go against its goal of efficiency: The reception area has high ceilings and is about 110 feet from wall to wall.

“We don’t need a space this big, but by keeping this open we can use the space for receptions and other events,” Mendelsohn said. “We can move all the furniture out and it’s wired for sound. The view out of the window is stunning in any light or weather.”

As DLA Piper is a global firm, Chicago-based design firm Gensler used the satellite image of the Earth to influence the Chicago office’s design — blues, greens and browns highlight everything throughout the office’s 175,868 square feet, from walls to the carpets in the lobby with facsimiles of the planet.

While there was a technology upgrade from the previous space — the network moves faster overall — there was a conscious effort to downgrade physical files; the firm recycled more than 100,000 paper files before the move.

“While we’re not a paperless environment, which is very difficult to create for a law firm, we really had to teach people new methods of how to do business to get us under 50,000 files,” Mendelsohn said.

Collaboration strong

The views from the windows of the building’s sloped façade are arguably the office’s most breathtaking aspect, and Gensler’s design takes advantage of it in ways subtle and profound.

Falling under “profound” is the dining area on the firm’s eighth floor. Out are the common interior cafés of many firms. Here the seating areas are lined against the floor’s outer windows, allowing staff to lunch against stunning skyline views.

The partners made sure to develop the space with an eye on keeping the increasingly younger staff satisfied and in a progressive environment — they installed an inclusion director, implemented all-gender bathrooms as well as meditation and nursing rooms.

Mendelsohn said the production in the office has gone up following the move this past Presidents Day weekend, noting that the past March and April were stronger months than any in 2016, which was a successful year for the office in general.

“I can’t prove it empirically, but I don’t think it’s a coincidence,” he said. “People are happy here and if you read all the studies about what makes people be more productive, it’s brightness and wide open spaces and a design where they can collaborate and spend time with one another that makes a meaningful difference.”

But even as the partners work to make sure the staff of 400 — including about 200 lawyers — is happy, Mendelsohn said it’s always essential that they make a good impression on clients, present and future.

“We don’t want clients to come here thinking [the space is] ostentatious and that they’re paying dearly for it,” he said. “It was important for us to create an environment that provided some degree of comfort along with a forward-thinking design.”