2017 Law Firm Spaces Survey

A look at the moves, trends and designs of the office spaces where lawyers work in Chicago

DLA Piper
Posinelli 3
Posinelli 2
Seyfarth Shaw
October 2017
By Paul Dailing

Conference tables, check. Dizzying skyline views, check. Coffee machine, check.

Collaboration spaces? Floor-to-ceiling touchscreens? Uniform-sized offices where the partner whose name is on the door gets not a square foot more than the starting associate?

Check, check and check.

The next few pages share the results of our 2017 Spaces Survey, our third-ever look at the offices and buildings Chicago firms call home. The last time we did this was in 2015, taking a snapshot of that year’s legal landscape.

With a few more years of post-Recession recovery under Chicago’s belt, the number of cranes operating in Chicago in 2017 hit a record 58, with 35 still up as of Oct. 18. With five more pending installation, the city expects the total crane count to hit 60 by the end of the year, said Mimi Simon, public affairs director at the Chicago Department of Buildings.

The previous record was 52, set last year.

This year’s Spaces Survey showed a profession on the move, both moving into the new towers jutting up downtown and eyeing moves toward uniform office sizes and collaborative workspaces.

The tuning fork

Two of the most notable new buildings of the new construction boom — 150 N. Riverside Plaza and River Point, both along the Chicago River — count law firms among their residents.

The curved, 52-story glass River Point abutting the river at Wolf Point, was designed by Connecticut-based Pickard Chilton and located at 444 N. Lake St. Its tenants include DLA Piper and Michael Best & Friedrich. The building is anchored by McDermott Will & Emery. (Turn to Page 12 for our profile of McDermott’s new offices.)

The shift in law firms from the Central Loop to the West Loop, specifically DLA Piper and Seyfarth Shaw, has driven increased vacancy in the former heart of the legal community, according to a second-quarter report from Colliers International. The Central Loop submarket reported 12.6 percent vacancy at the end of the second quarter of 2017, up from 11.2 percent at the end of 2016.

“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,” DLA Piper Chicago co-managing partner David Mendelsohn told Chicago Lawyer in July. “Companies in downtown Chicago are spreading out and not as focused on being in the Loop.”

Across Lake Street, the 54-story 150 N. Riverside, designed by Chicago's Goettsch Partners and Seattle-based structural engineers Magnusson Klemencic Associates, has been a notable addition to the city with its tuning-fork shape creating the visual effect of a top-heavy tower leaning over the start of the river’s South Branch.

It also triggered law firm moves. Polsinelli moved in and Arnstein & Lehr (now Saul Ewing Arnstein & Lehr) moved into Polsinelli’s former space at 161 N. Clark St.

Upcoming developments for 2018 include the John Buck Co.’s 151 N. Franklin St., which has already secured Hinshaw & Culbertson along with CNA Financial as anchor tenants, according to the Colliers report. The 35-story 151 N. Franklin was designed by Chicago’s John Ronan Architects and is set to open in June of next year.

Uniform office size

When DLA Piper moved to its new location, the firm’s overall footprint went down about 15 percent, said Chicago co-managing partner Richard Chesley.

The average lawyer office size went down about 17 percent, a drop mostly borne by the partners. The 165-square-foot offices at River Point were a slight step up for the associates.

All associates and partners were given the same number of bins for the move. Anything that didn’t fit didn’t come, either getting dumped or digitized.

“We heard a lot of ‘Where am I going to put all my paper?’” Chesley said. “That was a common refrain. So we got rid of paper.”

There was pushback on the move to 165-square-foot offices with uniform furniture, more due to familiarity than ego, Chesley believes. Partners accustomed to gathering in their offices had to get used to going to the team meeting room, for instance. People used to working behind closed doors had to acclimate to the glass walls that lets everyone see what they’re doing.

But results speak volumes. People take breaks outside their offices, meet and chat with friends. About 95 percent of the staff has natural light, which helps to energize the office. It’s a more social, collaborative space, Chesley said.

“From our standpoint, it’s been an enormous success,” he said.

It could have been far different, he said. Some factions within management wanted to get rid of partner offices entirely, creating a “hosting situation” to encourage the partners to spend less time in the office, more out meeting clients.

For firms considering a move to uniform offices, Chesley recommends giving everyone standardized furniture you know will fit. Communal workspace is vital. Technology needs to be adaptable.

And any firm considering a move to uniform office space has to understand not everyone’s going to be on board at first. Chesley joked that there was a stock answer for complaints about giving up square footage.

“Here was the answer: Get over yourself,” he said.

Collaborative workspaces

Seyfarth Shaw didn’t have the choice of whether to have corner offices when it moved in March 2016. Willis Tower — known to legions of tourists over the decades as Sears Tower — was built back in the 1970s.

But that doesn’t mean they couldn’t use the old design in a new way. All the corner offices at its Willis space have been either converted to collaborative workspaces or split between two employees who choose to work together closely. 1970s-style promises of “the corner office” shouldn’t be motivators in the 21st century workplace, said office co-managing partner Amanda Sonneborn.

“We try hard to reinforce a culture where those status symbols are not what people are shooting for,” said Sonneborn, who splits one of the shared corner offices with the co-chair of her practice group.

For Sonneborn’s co-managing partner Cory Hirsch, collaboration spaces are a necessity “if you’re moving to a uniform office size or in our case even less individual office space.”

Seyfarth Shaw first moved to a uniform office size in 2006, when it moved from 55 E. Monroe St. to 131 S. Dearborn St. It kept uniform offices, but the lawyers’ offices were uniformly smaller in Willis Tower. The firm added more communal space to counteract the drop in individual spaces.

“We wanted to get people up and around moving and interacting with each other,” Hirsch said. “On conference calls, people are getting up and meeting each other, not just staying in their office.”

Technological streamlining is needed in such a shift, Hirsch said. A lawyer hopping over to trial prep room or other shared space can plug a laptop into the screens with a single line, rather than the firm demanding staff juggle dozens of cords, plugs, dongles and sundry outlets.

As technology and the real estate market continue to shift, as glass walls and shared space replace drywall-cordoned rooms tiered hierarchically by size — and as the following survey results show — the only constant in where the law happens in Chicago is and will continue to be change.