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Made to order: How Seyfarth Shaw tailored its new Willis Tower office space

May 01, 2017
By Dustin J. Seibert
Chicago Lawyer correspondant

As is the case with many global law firms looking to open new offices or upgrade their current ones, Seyfarth Shaw had an eye on improving efficiency and making the best use of their square footage. But it’s likely that the most significant motivation behind the move of its flagship Chicago office to the Willis Tower was not about the space itself, but about improving the firm’s existing culture of collaboration.

The full-service firm celebrated its official grand opening April 3, capping off a six-month build-out of the new space. The firm moved nearly 650 staff members (including 200 attorneys) from the nine floors of the Citadel Center, 131 S. Dearborn St., to 200,000 square feet of space on floors 76 through 80 — and floor 38 — at the Willis Tower.

The 38th floor was not an accident or accommodation to the landlord. The firm planned the separate floor for its professional staff for better efficiency.

Seyfarth Shaw got its start in Chicago in 1945, having gone on to spawn 13 more offices internationally. However, the Willis Tower offices are the first location in the firm’s city history that it has had complete tabula rasa to tailor-make the space to its specifications, said Cory Hirsch, who serves as the Chicago office’s co-managing partner with Amanda Sonneborn.

The entire process, executed by design firm Gensler, took about three years.

“This was the first space that we were able to create on our own,” Hirsch said. “We took everything down to the studs and designed it how we wanted, which wasn’t an option before.”

Tech upgrades

Sonneborn said the firm was motivated to make the move in large part by a local real estate market three years ago that was in a good place to allow them to find the space they wanted.

“We needed to make some tech upgrades and to do it at the Citadel building would’ve required a massive disruption for a long period of time,” she said. “When this space became available, we were able to build it from nothing, which was very attractive to us not to disrupt our existing operation.”

In addition to the practical benefits of the move, Seyfarth Shaw certainly took advantage of its new iconic location to make a telling first impression on visitors: Stepping off the elevator into the 80th-floor reception area, the panoramic views immediately remind you that you’re high up in what was, until recently, the country’s tallest building.

If that doesn’t get your attention, the “media art” wall likely will. A grouping of flat-screen televisions near the seating area, they create a nifty screensaver effect that a digital artist will change from time to time.

“Our architect worked to encompass the blues of the lake and the city grays in the design of the space itself to compliment the views out of the windows,” Sonneborn said. “A lot of firms try to have the four-story-tall lobbies to mimic height, which we didn’t feel the need to do because we’re already so high up.”

Collaboration above all

When Sonneborn and Hirsch took over as managing partners of the office last fall, it was with an aim to improve upon the culture of collaboration that was already present in Seyfarth Shaw’s Citadel Center office. They accomplish that in part by being constantly present on every floor and hosting meetings throughout the six-floor area in lieu of bringing employees to a centralized space.

“We believe staff and lawyers together make a firm work well, and this space allows us to break down the barriers to make that happen,” Sonneborn said.

But that spirit of collaboration can be seen, first and foremost, in the space itself: Many design choices were made with an eye on staff uniformity, including a trend that many firms have pursued as of late — uniform office size.

“Cory and I were concerned about how attorneys would feel about the smaller offices when we stepped into the leadership role, but we’ve found that people have been quite receptive to it,” Sonneborn said.

Other design decisions made in the interest of collaboration include open interior stairwells that prevent staff from needing to move about via elevator banks and a number of meeting spaces on every attorney floor that contain “appreciation walls” that allow the staff to write notes with markers to share good words about their colleagues.

Every meeting space – from lounges to several lunchrooms (some with food) to corner offices — are retrofitted with connectivity. With USB ports and power outlets under seemingly every table and desk in the office, staff can connect anywhere, at any time.

“We spent a lot of energy on making our Wi-Fi seamless so it doesn’t give out in certain spots like it did at the Citadel Center,” Sonneborn said.

The main conference rooms are fitted with bleeding-edge tech that allows for quick and seamless connectivity of devices for phone and video conferencing; outside of the 80th floor, rooms are touch screens that allow staff to reserve or see the status of a room.

“There was a lot of money put in to making conference rooms easier to use while also maintaining the portability factor,” Hirsch said. “It’s been a big deal here for us to encouraging people to get out and collaborate and ensuring that if you want to move away from your office, your technology will be fine.”

On a corner kiosk of the 79th floor is techSeyt, Seyfarth Shaw’s answer to the Apple Genius Bar. During business hours, any staff member can visit a techSeyt employee to have them work on a tech issue that, at most companies, would require a call to IT. It all goes back to getting staff together.

“If you have hands-on training, you’re going to learn more than sitting with someone on the phone,” Hirsch said. “If you have multiple people with the same tech issue, they’re going to eventually share it with other people in the office.”

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