Spaces: Minimal design, maximum benefits

<em>ISBA Mutual’s new space occupies the eighth floor of 20 S. Clark St. — one floor below the Illinois State Bar Association’s headquarters.</em> <em>Alan Sue, ISBA Mutual</em>
ISBA Mutual’s new space occupies the eighth floor of 20 S. Clark St. — one floor below the Illinois State Bar Association’s headquarters. —Photo by Alan Sue, ISBA Mutual
April 2016

Synchronicity.

That was the key word when developing ISBA Mutual Insurance Co.’s new office space: The legal-malpractice insurance company is its own business, but it was founded and designed to work in concert with the Illinois State Bar Association. To that end, the company has spent its nearly 30-year history striving to occupy the same physical space as the ISBA.

ISBA Mutual moved to the eighth floor of 20 S. Clark St. in October. The ISBA’s headquarters are one floor above. An in-office staircase links the two, allowing for a natural integration not achieved by elevators or stairwells.

“Our connection to ISBA has been an extremely important part of the history of the company, and we want to be close physically as well as philosophically,” says ISBA Mutual CEO Jon DeMoss.

Not only is ISBA Mutual’s new space conducive to working with attorneys via the ISBA, but the 12,717-square-foot space also makes it easier for the staff of 20 to collaborate with one another; its former space at 223 W. Ohio St. spread employees from every department across separate floors.

“To talk to each other and interact is a lot easier in an open office,” says Marketing Director Kathleen O’Shaughnessy. “Plus, we wanted a really efficient space so we could dedicate more of it to the lawyers. If (our staff) had giant individual offices, we wouldn’t have that space for them.”

Indeed, the new space, completed in February, is geared more toward potential insureds than company staff: Located near the Daley Center, City Hall and the Dirksen Federal Courthouse, the office is meant to provide a haven in which attorneys can work, collaborate and rest.

The company invited hundreds to its March 9 grand opening celebration, and O’Shaughnessy plans to reach out to the 100-plus specialty bar associations in Illinois and other companies to advertise its resources.

“If you have a court call at Daley Plaza, you have a couple hours to kill before your train and you want a quiet place to get things done, it’s a better place to come than a Starbucks,” she says.

Filling a void

ISBA Mutual was founded in 1988 after then-ISBA president Richard Thies appointed a task force to consider alternatives to commercial insurance companies. DeMoss, also a former ISBA president, says the exorbitant insurance premiums lawyers had to pay at the time resulted in early success for ISBA Mutual as an alternative.

“There was such an upheaval in the insurance industry that professional liability lawyers in particular were getting big premium increases that were not justified,” DeMoss says. “We had a lot of goodwill when we started. At the time, we were at a third of the pricing for rest of the market, which quickly came down to our level.”

In the beginning, ISBA Mutual had no employees and outsourced work to vendors. The very first employees were hired when the company occupied a small space at the ISBA’s former regional office at 75 E. Wacker Drive.

They spent about a year in that space before moving in 1990 to their current address on the ninth floor with ISBA. By the time ISBA Mutual’s lease was up in 2000, the insurer needed more space to accommodate the company’s growth, so it purchased the building at 223 W. Ohio St.

DeMoss says the Ohio Street location was a good space to build out the company, but it was imperative the offices be physically near the ISBA.

“This floor opening up gave us a chance, so we jumped at it,” he says.

The amenity center

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More than half of the office is dedicated to lawyer amenities, including, perhaps essentially, a cafe area on the building’s northeast side.

Though the sleek cafe looks ideal for having lunch, it’s actually a utilitarian space full of hidden power and USB outlets. Pens, Post-it Notes and memo pads sit at the middle of each individual table; a long, bar-style counter promotes collaboration among several lawyers. A large, flat-screen television, which was used for March Madness events, hangs on the wall.

The space is an alternative base for many attorneys, particularly those who work from home through solo or small practices, O’Shaughnessy says.

“When people work from home, they often find they need to get out of the house because they get too comfortable,” she says. “It’s a great place to both network and get work done.”

Adjacent to the cafe is a large seminar room that can be divided in two with a large roll-out wall. The room, which can fit 90 people in a classroom layout, is fitted with modern conferencing technology, including wireless microphones on the ceilings and conference screens that drop down.

Organizations like the Decalogue Society of Lawyers, the Lawyers Trust Fund of Illinois and the Illinois Real Estate Lawyers Association have already booked the space for events. And because it was built as a member benefit of the ISBA, its technology syncs with that of the floor above.

“They (ISBA) do a lot of educational programs, so if they have an overflow upstairs, they can just bring people down here,” DeMoss says.

O’Shaughnessy’s favorite aspect of the new office space is a breakout area with four soundproof booths, each fitted with power outlets, Ethernet connections and USB chargers; one is larger than the others for accessibility for those with disabilities. The rooms allow attorneys to maintain the essential aspect of attorney-client confidentiality.

“Nothing that drives me crazier than when I’m at a CLE event and there’s a lawyer in the hallway discussing client matters for the world to hear,” she says. “We’re an insurance company, so I realize that should not happen.”

Design genius

Chad Harrell, of Chicago-based architectural firm Griskelis Young Harrell, is the brainchild behind ISBA Mutual’s office layout. DeMoss, who is on the board of trustees at The John Marshall Law School, drew upon Harrell after he was instrumental in expanding part of the law school space.

Harrell designed the ISBA Mutual office with an eye on minimalism — the view of Chase Tower and its plaza on the other side of Clark is the main star, but the office walls are free of the artwork, framed photos and articles characteristic of many law offices the company serves. The only piece hanging on any wall is ISBA Mutual’s very first line slip from Lloyd’s of London in the main employee conference area.

Harrell used smoked eucalyptus planks in lieu of conventional wood paneling — not only because its aesthetics are “inviting, edgy and timeless,” he says, but also because it’s a renewable “green” option. The ceilings and lighting in each room of the office vary based on their purpose, and the abundance of glass throughout the space is designed to utilize natural light.

Despite his desire to hang things up in his personal office, DeMoss defers to Harrell’s vision, even though he doesn’t have to.

“He took the (John Marshall space) and did something remarkable with it,” he says. “The guy is a genius, and though I have my feedback, I just tried to stay out of his way.”