Birth of the cool

What you get when you ask for ‘the coolest law firm space in the city’

By Dustin J. Seibert
Chicago Lawyer correspondent

As managing partner of Tressler’s flagship office located in Chicago, Todd Schenk had a very simple edict when it came to moving the firm to its new office space.

“I said [to the architect], ‘I want the coolest law firm space in the city if we can have it with our budget, so try your best,” Schenk said. “I decided I wouldn’t overrule the stuff they came up with because I wanted them to try.”

The cool was accomplished last January: The elevator bank off of Tressler’s new 61st floor home in Willis Tower greets visitors with dark walls, low light and a prominent red neon light running across the top of the wall. It looks more like the entrance of a nightclub than a law firm.

“The red light was originally designed to direct people to reception,” Schenk said. The main purpose behind it is wayfinding, but I think my core architects took to heart my wish to be cool.”

Home at Willis

Tressler has been in the Willis Tower since 1992. The firm was previously on the 22nd floor and part of the 21st for a while before the firm subleased it. On 22, they had about 54,000 square feet; the new office is a drop to 42,000, but Schenk said it feels “roomier.” They can add a good 15 lawyers to the space without radical upgrades, Schenk said.

Since the firm is steadily moving toward no paper — Schenk says they’re “paper-light” today — the decrease in square footage can be attributed largely to the eradication of space needed to store files.

“We have the same number of people, but we don’t have hallways that were full of file cabinets anymore,” he said. “We don’t have a huge file rooms anymore. You don’t need 20 percent of your office space dedicated to storing paper.”

Tressler decided to remain in the Willis Tower as long-term tenants in large part because they wanted to “get in on the front end” of a massive $500 million-plus renovation that the building is currently undergoing, Schenk said. That renovation will feature a retail and entertainment area on the ground floor, among other improvements. Schenk, who is celebrating 25 years with the firm this year, says he hopes to retire in the Willis Tower.

“We feel like it’s going to be the premier building in the city when it’s done,” he said. “It had gotten dated compared to some of the brand-new buildings. With all the resources to modernize things, I think it’s really going to be able to compete with any building in the city now.”

Modernizing the office

The presence of so much glass where there wasn’t glass before is perhaps the most noteworthy change in the new space. It benefits everyone to some degree, but especially paralegals and support staff, who were previously relegated largely to windowless areas or those with no direct sunlight.

“We intentionally designed the space to let light in all the way into the middle of the space, because we wanted our staff who are largely not on perimeter offices to have the same light the lawyers are getting, and it just makes the space so much more pleasant to be in,” Schenk said.

The corners of the floor are no longer for big partner offices, but now house “family rooms” that the staff of each practice area can use as spaces to collaborate or simply to convene.

“We wanted to send that message that the leaders were not closeting ourselves away in a corner office,” Schenk said of the partners. “We’re right in the trenches with everybody else.”

Upgrades include new modern office furniture with sit-stand desks and new computers with dual monitors. There’s also a wellness room for nursing mothers or others who need to tend to health issues with privacy.

There’s also the Commons: A dedicated cafe that’s at least three times larger than its predecessor. It sits with a southeast view of the city and the Museum Campus that Schenk calls the “prime real estate” on the floor.

There’s a large beverage dispenser in the cafe with plenty of refreshments and a new self-serve vending area. Jenga and an oversized Connect Four game sit on the tables. The new, improved cafe results in staff spending more time congregating with each other in lieu of sitting in their offices, Schenk said.

Bring in the light

Schenk said there was a palpable excitement among the staff to see the space even before renovations were completed. However, Schenk admits the older lawyers had to struggle the most with the glass.

“They said they didn’t think this was going to work,” he said. “Now, a couple of those people love it. I’ve seen them get used to the glass and working away at their new sit-stand desk. It took them a week or two.”

Schenk admits that, after 25 years of walls, the glass was a bit daunting for him as well, but he also adjusted like his colleagues.

“You just get to see everyone a lot more … even if it’s just waving at people while you’re hammering away on your computer or on a conference call,” he said. “It really fosters teamwork because we all see each other more often.”