Out in the open

Trading drywall for glass and speakerphones for touch screens, McDermott Will & Emery opens the workspace

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Photos by Rena Naltsas
October 2017
By Dustin J. Seibert
Chicago Lawyer correspondent

For 28 years, McDermott Will & Emery took up a dominant portion of the Franklin Center, so it’s no surprise that the firm takes up a lot of space at its new building … even if it’s not quite as much.

The international multipurpose firm took up 13 floors in the Franklin Center at 227 W. Monroe St. and is now the anchor tenant at the recently opened River Point building at 444 N. Lake St. The building opened at the beginning of the year and the firm moved into its new offices on March 27.

Out with the old

Though McDermott is the primary tenant of the 52-story skyscraper, the firm sacrificed about 15 percent of its square footage — going down to roughly 209,000 square feet — for the move. Leaving for the new space when the lease ended was not a decision the leadership reached lightly, said Lydia Kelley, partner-in-charge of the flagship Chicago office.

“We had to consider the whole financial picture, including the inconvenience of living through a remodel,” Kelley said. “With this building — well outside of the Loop proper — we had the opportunity to create something new while staying true to our culture and professional services approach.”

The drive to consolidate space was borne of a desire to create a more practical and collaborative environment for the more than 400 employees of McDermott’s main office, said office administrator Christopher Culver.

“Now we have a much smaller core and less impediments, like building columns, that take up space, so it’s a whole different ballgame,” Culver said. “We’ve retained some traditional elements of our old space, like the use of lot of wood, but in ways that make the space look a bit more modern.”

Interior design firm Gary Lee Partners designed the new office; that it worked on the upgrades of the Franklin Center office made for an easier build-out, Kelley said.

“They understand that we are client-facing and that we have both senior and millennial lawyers,” she said. “They wanted to take our existing culture and bring it into 2017 in a way that makes the space timeless.”

Outside of collaboration, the other motivator for decreasing space was to make the office more “green” by moving incrementally further away from the use of paper and toward digital records.

“We had an entire floor that was dedicated to a library,” Kelley said. “We still need the staff for that library but we don’t need the books anymore.”

In with the new

You wouldn’t assume McDermott scaled down its square footage by too much when looking at the massive, visually striking lobby. Reaching from the 40th floor to the ceiling of the 41st, the lobby invites an echo and has floor-to-ceiling windows with an eastward view up the Chicago River and toward Lake Michigan. A stairwell connects the 40th floor to 41st, which consists primarily of conference rooms.

The advanced technology employed throughout the entire office is noticeable first in the lobby, which has a massive screen wall composed of nine flat-screen monitors. Touch screens dominate the entire office — from those outside of the conference rooms confirming their usage to the SMART technology that allows people to conduct video conferences on the same screens on which they can “write” digitally.

“The leading-edge technology is geared toward client collaboration,” Culver said. “In each new build in our former space, we would upgrade our tech. This move offered us the opportunity to keep up with the pace of client needs and take our next steps into the future.”

Kelley and Culver said that building a space that’s comfortable for staff, clients and attorneys who visit from any of the 18 other offices. There are numerous breakout spaces that invite collaboration as well as office spaces that allow for personalized nameplates on the outside of the door. Dining spaces are full of televisions and comfortable, wired working spaces that make it easy for colleagues to leave the office area and find places of solitude.

The individual attorney offices were each upgraded with motorized desks and tables that allow for work while standing. Each perimeter office — which belong to associates and partners — is now separated with floor-to-ceiling glass. That’s proven a significant and somewhat controversial change from the privacy-protecting drywall in the offices at the Franklin Center.

“For some people, the change was tough — especially going from drywall to glass, and Chris and I have addressed some of that anxiety,” Kelley said. “For people who want privacy, like nursing mothers or people who want to pray, we have rooms where people can do that privately, and it seems to be going well so far.”

Kelley has spent her entire career with McDermott, joining when the firm’s office was still at 111 W. Monroe St. After spending 28 years at the Franklin Center, she notices a distinct difference in the neighborhood feel that comes from being on the western part of the Loop off at Wolf Point.

“There’s lots of hustle and bustle outside, just like the old office, but it feels more residential — you see people walking their dogs when you go outside,” Kelley said. “It’s just a different feel, and it’s fresh and energized.”