Let there be light

Hinshaw traded dark wood for graffiti-tagged stairwells and clear glass

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 Photo by Rena Naltsas
By Dustin J. Seibert
Chicago Lawyer correspondent

Since its move to 151 N. Franklin St. in spring 2018, the Chicago office of Hinshaw & Culbertson has led the path in technological and design innovation for the firm’s 20 other locations — essential considering the amount of change that was necessary for the move.

“We were still wheeling video carts in and out of conference rooms and pulling phones across the table, really there was nowhere to go but up,” according to Chief Information and Operating Officer Tracy Elmblad.

Hinshaw’s other locations are hoping to emulate Chicago’s technological success, she said.

“The experience of conducting conference calls is almost transformative in relation to what it was like before,” Elmblad said. “So much so that when we get folks from other offices come in they wonder what they have to do.”

New blood

Hinshaw had been in its previous office at 222 N. LaSalle St. for more than two decades. The move aligned with new blood in the C-suite, a new logo and a general sentiment that things were getting a bit stale, said partner in charge Diane Webster.

Following a search for office space at several Loop area buildings, the firm landed on about 90,000 square feet in a contemporary glass tower; the firm takes up the 22nd through the 25th floor and part of the 21st. Below the firm is the building’s anchor tenant CNA Financial and Facebook is expected to join them soon in the floors above.

“It’s not a bad place to be sandwiched between CNA and Facebook,” Webster said.

Leadership set as its goal a mandate to recycle and repurpose what they had, but also do so in a technologically innovative way.

The staff was polled for ideas and requests for the new space. They were bundled and relayed to architect Solomon Cordwell Buenz; leadership worked to accommodate the staff as best as they could, Webster said.

“People wanted more open air, more collaboration areas, light going into the internal spaces,” she said. “Attorneys wanted to be close to court and a lot of the staff wanted to be close to the trains. But the space was exciting for us because it’s literally two blocks from the old office.”

The office stands in stark contrast to the more traditional layout of the LaSalle Street office: Dark woods, minimal light and a number of other design aspects that made it look like a law office from the 1990s.

“The building was outdated and would’ve needed a considerable renovation to get current,” Webster said. “We’ve been around for 85 years so we aren’t a new firm, but we wanted to bridge the gap by becoming more modern without forgetting who we are.”

“We also wanted to make something timeless and built to last so we didn’t look back and think, ‘What were we thinking in 2018?’” she said.

Dark to light

Gone are the dark woods, dank, low-lit office corners; a dedicated library room full of books people don’t read anymore and the massive partner offices providing enough room for a small party. Firm Chairman Peter Sullivan is the only attorney with a large conference room adjoining his office.

“How often do you really have more than one or two people in your office? Rarely,” Webster said. “If anyone needs that, there are collaboration spaces that people use all the time.”

Every floor has collaborative spaces, the most prominent of which are just off of the elevator bank on nearly every floor.

The glass dividers, or walls, that separate those spaces from associate offices are adorned with holographic film picturing dilapidated factories from the city’s West Side. They serve a triple-purpose of providing light, privacy and something nifty for the staff to look at.

The 23rd floor uses its cafe as a stand-in for the breakout spaces on the other floors. Its floor-to-ceiling windows alone make it a night-and-day difference compared to the cafe on the interior of the old office, said Webster.

“It was windowless and you wanted to die in there,” Webster said. “This [cafe] goes right to the glass and people love to eat in there.”

The graffiti-tagged stairwells is the office’s most striking visual element — an unexpected flourish for a global law firm’s decor.

The firm commissioned Detroit-based artist Griffin Goodman from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago to paint the murals on the stairwell walls of floors 22 through 25 with nonflammable paint. Each floor has its own theme.

“It would have been crazy expensive to build internal stairwell [or a nontraditional stairwell through the office’s floors] so this was a more economical compromise,” Webster said.

Conference calls aren’t the only tech upgrade following the move. Sit-stand desks are commonplace throughout the office. USB ports throughout make it easier for staff to move from room to room and plug in.

Even security measures got an upgrade: Meetings with clients at the old office would become too unwieldly and spill over into associate offices, potentially exposing sensitive client files. Now, all client and nonstaff meetings are on the 25th floor.

Acknowledging that not everyone will be pleased by such significant changes, Webster said that the “vast majority of staff is really happy” a year after the move.

“It’s all fresh and new and everyone’s work stations are so much nicer,” she said.