Spaces: The games are always on at Edelson

Circuit board name plates indicate the order employees came to the firm.  <em>Natalie Battaglia</em>
Circuit board name plates indicate the order employees came to the firm.  —Photo by Natalie Battaglia
December 2013

The orange tape lining the floor of Edelson LLC’s main lobby area is designed to mimic the lines on a tennis court — except it wraps up along a wall and part of the ceiling.

The aesthetic is not accidental, considering that the lobby — with its flat-screen television that’s always connected to a video game system — has seen what might be some of the most competitive games of Wii Tennis ever to take place in a Chicago law firm.

Sound unorthodox? That’s exactly what firm founder Jay Edelson is going for.

“The idea is that when people come into the firm, we’re front and center,” Edelson said. “There are people out here swinging away playing (Wii) tennis … we’re not trying to hide who we are.”

Ping Pong
A table-tennis table in Edelson’s main conference room.
Photo by Natalie Battaglia.

The firm formed as KamberEdelson in 2007 and was housed in the Monadnock Building before moving to its current location on the 13th floor of 350 N. LaSalle St. in mid-2008. It now has satellite locations in Denver and California with 21 attorneys across all offices.

Because the firm specializes in electronic discovery issues surrounding information technology, Edelson wanted his 10,000-square-foot space to resemble companies like Google and Facebook, which are not only highly successful but also known for their positive work cultures and employee perks.

“Even though we sue tech companies, we kinda empathize with them,” Edelson said. “We think they have a better business model. What we’re trying to do is show that there’s a better way to run a law firm — less hardcore, less rigid. … You can actually enjoy being a lawyer and practicing law.”

Edelson also wanted his firm’s culture to depart from what he deemed the “old rules” traditional private firm experience he had as a new attorney out of University of Michigan Law School.

“I was very frustrated as a young attorney feeling like I could contribute a lot, but forced to do more menial work and just wait and wait and wait,” he said.

“Most of the people who work (at these firms) aren’t terribly happy, and I don’t think they do the best work either. You see the (Facebook co-founder Mark) Zuckerbergs of the world — 19 years old and changing everything — and there’s still the view that people who train at top law schools can’t contribute anything for six or seven years. I just thought that couldn’t possibly be right.”

Dreams of beach volleyball

Perhaps the most shining example of Edelson’s culture is the office’s work/play balance — specifically, the amount of “play” that occurs in the office itself. It’s a place where associates had to once consider walking the hallways with protective glasses because of an ongoing battle waged with modified Nerf guns.

It’s also a place where conference rooms might resemble recreation rooms, depending on when you decide to visit.

Pool Table
Another conference room features a pool table.
Photo by Natalie Battaglia.

Its main conference room is unofficially dubbed the “ping-pong room” for the table-tennis table in the middle of the room. On a nearby wall hang the aluminum tops that are placed on the table when it’s time to get down to business.

Table tennis is a significant part of Edelson: The annual office tournament will have many employees training feverishly on the table — even during times when the tabletops need to be placed down for meetings.

“It’s happened many times where we have to come up to the room and tell people ‘OK, you gotta go,’” said senior associate Christopher Dore.

The conference room in which the firm trains its summer associates has an undersized pool table in the middle. It can also be converted to a regular table, though Dore said it’s not switched over very often.

Near the rear of the office is a carnival-style basketball game that Edelson says “breaks often” because a lot of people use it.

Edelson’s promise for the firm’s next office space down the line is an indoor beach volleyball court. Employees are currently heavily into volleyball, but unlike table tennis, they have to play it offsite.

“We’ll make it happen somehow,” he said.

Building firm culture

Edelman doesn’t put much stock into an attorney’s overall experience level when determining whether to hire them. That’s a large part of the reason he’s not likely to hire laterally from other firms.

“We think they’ve been badly trained,” he said.

He’d rather emphasize the importance of the length of time a staff member spends with his firm, evidenced by his office-labeling system. The nameplate on the outside of each person’s office is a repurposed circuit board with the employee’s name alongside the number ranking the order in which he or she came to the firm (outside his office is “J. Edelson — 1”).

He notes that Dore, who despite being only 31 years old, has the number 6 on his plate.

“It’s a big deal, because it shows he’s been with us since we were a lot smaller and less successful,” Edelson said. “That’s more important than your seniority. You may have been practicing law for 15 years, but you did it at a different firm.”

In the firm’s main corridor, across from the row of offices, is the “clerk pit,” a large room in which each of Edelson’s summer associates work. Many of them come back to work for the firm once they graduate law school.

“We put the clerks in this accessible room so that everyone gets to know them and they become part of this firm as quickly as possible,” Edelson said. “Instead of giving them other offices, the idea is they’re out there in the middle of everything.”

The clerk pit is also a good place to acclimate the clerks to the fun, yet sometimes distracting, reality of being an Edelson employee.

“It’s a high-energy place with a lot of noise,” Edelson said. “When we have successes, people yell, give each other hugs and jump all over the place. It’s about learning how to block out distractions here and getting work done.”

Camaraderie among employees old and new is built through the daily lunches that Edelson has catered to the office. Food is served in the firm’s kitchen and the ping-pong room becomes a lunchroom.

“We ask people who work here to work pretty hard,” Edelson said. “We want to take care of them in as many ways as possible. And this works out well because people tend to eat together and it helps build our culture.”

Edelson previously had lunch catered using a group ordering system, but decided to go healthier with a single chef after so much guilty-pleasure food came to the office.

“We were all getting a little fat, so we had to change it up,” Edelson said.

Kid-friendly

When schools were closed on the most recent Columbus Day holiday, Edelson’s curious 9-year-old son, Jonah, clad in a soccer uniform, had the run of the place.

Hoops
Employees are welcome to bring their kids to the office.
Photo by Natalie Battaglia.

Edelson said employees are always welcome to bring their children to the office — a naturally child-friendly environment thanks to all the video games and sports tables.

Edelson recently used Jonah and his older sister, Leah, in a somewhat mischievous prank on potential firm hires. Candidates were sat down at a desk, only to see Jonah and Leah spin around in their big chairs to conduct their version of an interview.

The last question from the kids: “How do you feel about working for someone younger than you?”

“These were real interviews,” he said. “We definitely are not above throwing curveballs at people.”