Elements of style

Baker McKenzie’s Chicago space brings earth, air, fire and water into play

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

Each of the four elements from ancient Greece is represented in the 50th floor main lobby of Baker McKenzie’s Chicago office: Air is represented by the high ceiling that stretches above the 51st floor; fire is represented by the fireplace near the waiting area and earth is represented by the plants in that same area.

Easily the most visually striking element on display is water, represented by what looks like a moat stretched across much of the center lobby floor with less than a foot of water off of the marble floor. It’s a no-nonsense design element emblematic of the fact that Baker McKenzie, based on the most recent Global 100, is the world’s second-largest international law firm by revenue.

The firm moved up the street from the Prudential Plaza at 130 E. Randolph St. to its current location 300 E. Randolph — known largely as the Blue Cross Blue Shield Tower — following a two-phase process in December 2011 and January 2012. The 211,000-square-foot office space is the firm’s largest in North America and contains more than 250 attorneys.

“Our lobby is inspired by what connects our different cultures in the 77 countries in which we practice law,” said Regine Corrado, managing partner of the firm’s Chicago office.

Corrado said the firm decided to move when it was approaching the end of its previous lease and started outgrowing its Prudential Plaza space.

“In our conference rooms, we were busting out of the seams,” she said. “We wanted to find a space that better accommodates our love of collaboration and also have more space to open up the office to connect with our clients and the world.”

After nearly six years, there’s no risk of the office growing beyond the space it has, Corrado said.

“In fact, we’re thinking proactively about how to convert existing space and do partial hoteling because a lot of our staff works remotely,” she said.

A different movement

The entirety of the Blue Cross Blue Shield Tower, whose second phase was completed in 2010, has a techy, post-modern aesthetic — lots of metal tubing and exposed elevator shafts. That aesthetic made the building an ideal shooting location for 2014’s “Transformers: Age of Extinction.” Scenes were shot in the Russell Baker conference room, which overlooks the atrium that goes down to the center of the building. Clients and colleagues were used as extras in the film.

The biggest contrast between the current and previous space, Corrado said, is that the unshielded glass doors and glass walls don’t provide the privacy that the wooden office doors offered in the Prudential Plaza.

“It allows us to approach people differently when we can see what they’re doing in their office,” she said. “You can see when a good time is to come and chat or wait. The big, thick doors of the old space isolated everyone.”

Corrado admitted that while many of the younger associates embraced the light-inviting clear walls and doors, the older lawyers and partners didn’t take to it as well in the beginning.

“There were complaints about the lack of frosted glass and some put up screens in their offices at first,” she said. “But we opted to do the clear glass for one reason: to keep things transparent and have people feel that this is a collaborative space. After about a year, everyone got used to it.”

Corrado said it’s with an eye on collaboration that drove the office design: The firm has eight floors — from 44 to 51 — with attorney floors split up by practice group; the larger groups are spread out across more floors.

“We pride ourselves on really working across offices, jurisdictions and industries,” she said. “We wanted to show that and live that more in our daily lives, which is how we came up with transparency in the design.”

The space was designed to allow for meetings in and around the kitchen and lounge areas. Furnished spaces on each floor behind the internal staircase and overlooking the building atrium have various functions, from relaxation to gathering around a television for sporting events or space for the firm’s many internal and external gatherings, from baby showers to fundraisers to retirement parties.

War rooms

The 50th and 51st floors consist of 19 conference rooms, including the massive Inns West room, which can be separated into thirds by moving walls and which contains perhaps the best views of Chicago in an office with plenty of breathtaking ones — southbound overlooking Millennium and Grant Parks, along with the lakefront.

Attorney floors — 44 through 49 — have a familiar layout: Paralegals and junior associates are in internal offices; partners and senior associates have exterior offices; and support staff exists in cubicles between them. The attorney and partner offices are not uniform in size — something Corrado admitted is an increasingly common trend in law offices.

“We came from much larger partner offices in our older space, but it’s hard to believe that the trend has gone as it has toward uniform offices in just six years,” she said.

In keeping with the theme of collaboration, there are small conference rooms, breakout spaces and “war rooms” on every attorney floor. The office also has a main library that, as is the case with libraries in law firms everywhere, has an ever-shrinking number of books as the firm moves toward an increasingly paperless environment.

“We still love our librarians, of course,” Corrado said. “They do amazing research, but mostly everything is digital. We do have some partners who still enjoy their hard-copy books though.”