Housing law’s home

Housing law’s home - Photo by Rena Naltsas
January 2017
By Dustin J. Seibert
Chicago Lawyer correspondent

When Applegate & Thorne-Thomsen was building out its new office space the goal was to bring in a bit of the new while leaving in place a bit of the old.

The firm consolidated its two offices — formerly in Greektown and the West Loop — by moving downtown to 440 S. LaSalle St. in July 2016. Those office spaces were highlighted by exposed brick and timber, less characteristic of traditional law firms and more in tune with companies with a younger staff like Applegate & Thorne-Thomsen’s.

There’s no exposed brick in the new 23,000-square-foot space, but the office design still eschews “traditional” through its contemporary flourishes throughout, including attorney names (and nicknames) etched on steel plates that hang from chains above their offices, motorized standing desks and board games in the meeting areas that double as wall decor.

“We kept a little bit of the loft feel by keeping the ceilings exposed, but we can’t quite replicate the whole thing,” said firm co-founder Bennett Applegate.

Applegate & Thorne-Thomsen certainly possesses a domestic warmth, perhaps most evident in its Green Street main conference room, named as a nod to their original office’s address. The couches and pillows surrounding the conference table make the room right off the 19th-floor lobby look more like a lounge than a place where deals are made.

“When we decided to move into the Loop, we were going for more warmer tones that signified a less corporate-y space,” said partner Rachel Goetz.

The memory of the former office spaces, which closed immediately following the move, are represented through their blueprint layout renderings that hang on a conference room wall. The blueprints serve a dual purpose: They look cool and they serve to be a representative sample of the work of many of its real estate practice clients.

The staff’s initial reluctance to move downtown — and have to deal with everything involved with moving downtown — has yielded to an appreciation for the new space, Applegate said.

“We built out a space people are real comfy in,” Applegate said. “That we are in close proximity to a lot of things we weren’t before is a benefit that I don’t think everyone has really had the opportunity to embrace yet.”

The cultural connection

Applegate & Thorne-Thomsen opened in 1998 when Applegate and five other attorneys left Schiff Hardin to start a firm focusing on affordable housing and community development work.

“I realized at the time we split off on our own that we didn’t need the accouterments of a big law firm for what we do, so when we decided to venture out on our own, we wanted to create an environment similar to our client base,” Applegate said.

“Many of our developers are not for profit, so we didn’t want to make a space they wouldn’t be comfortable in,” Goetz added. “Half of our clients are real estate developers and they bring their architects and clients here, so our casual environment fits their business.”

The space is designed with an egalitarian mindset: Each attorney office is the same size, placement was determined by lottery and one of the best views out of the windows is available in the community space adjacent to the main conference room.

“We worked to create an open space where the most favorable view was one that everyone can enjoy, as opposed to many typical law firms where partners get the best views,” Goetz said. “In fact, some of our smaller offices are the ones in the corners.”

That community space serves as the main gathering area for the firm’s 54 staff members. Adorned with an eye-catching facsimile of a Scrabble board on the wall with words spelling out the firm’s practice area, the long dining table and couches are designed to invite the entire staff to mingle with each other.

Goetz said the interior designer, Anita Galatte of Artspiring Inc., designed the community area, along with other aspects of the office, with community in mind.

The community area is just off the main conference room and separated with a wall.

“We’ve always had a very friendly culture and everyone wants to be social, but we were growing so fast that we didn’t have the space,” Goetz said. “This new space accommodates more social gatherings; people don’t go out for lunch as often as they used to, and we have a firm lunch every Wednesday.”

Perhaps the biggest boon of the new space is that everyone is now together. The firm was previously split into two only because growth couldn’t support one space; staff used to have to travel several blocks for meetings or to communicate in person.

“We started with five attorneys, and we now have 29,” Applegate said. “We’ve grown considerably over the last two years; a half-dozen attorneys in the last 18 months, which is pretty considerable for a firm our size. Growth has been mostly demand-driven, and we have a very particular niche — not many firms in the region do what we do — so we’ve been very fortunate to have achieved our successes.”