Bucking the trends

Segal McCambridge looked to its employees, not fads, for direction

 Photos by Rena Naltsas
August 2019
By Paul Dailing
Former editor

Collaboration spaces. Hoteling. Universal office sizes. Those are some things you will not find in Segal McCambridge Singer & Mahoney’s recent renovation.

“We looked at all these potential radical changes, like the hoteling, like the universal office size,” said Michael Leddin, the firm’s executive director. “People didn’t want to do it.”

The firm isn’t just guessing that the employees didn’t want those popular design trends incorporated into the remodel of its space on the 55th and 56th floors of Willis Tower. It knows. Wanting an employee-focused process, management turned to attorneys and staff for insight in a series of surveys circulated during spring 2017.

The surveys revealed some unexpected results. One example is the feedback on universal office spaces, which are often touted as a way to democratize firms and level the historic divide between partners and associates.

“Oddly enough, for example, the associates, the younger attorneys that would be in the smaller offices, did not like the idea of a universal office size,” Leddin said. “They like the idea that they’re going to become a partner here, and they’re going to have a larger office then. So it doesn’t bother them.”

Survey says

Knowing its lease was coming up for renewal in November 2018, the firm sent out four surveys asking questions ranging from whether attorneys and staff would like to move to what they think of collaboration spaces.

“What we were trying to do is find a way to make this a space people would want to come to, want to be in and be proud of. As a firm and individually, to feel like it’s worth coming through all the hassle in the Willis Tower and the multiple elevator rides and escalator rides to get here. It’s a ‘destination is worth the journey’ thing,” managing shareholder Mark Crane said.

Since a firm is more than just lawyers, one survey went to partners, one to associates, one to paralegals and one to staff.

“We solicited general feedback too, but we asked about things like ‘Do you like the hoteling concept for the attorneys?’ ‘Do you think we should go to a universal office size?’ ‘How important are certain amenities?’” Crane said.

The results varied among the surveys. Commuters from the suburbs generally preferred to stay in Willis Tower, given its proximity to the Metra stations. Many associates had different priorities.

“If they’re living in the city, if they’re going out after work, they prefer River North,” Leddin said. “We kind of saw that breakdown in terms of how the survey went because the associates generally preferred the possibility of moving, but if they were to move, it would be River North. Everyone else was pretty comfortable here.”

The firm opted to stay at Willis Tower, where it has made its home since 2007 — a decision that allowed Segal McCambridge to take advantage of its existing buildout and focus renovation efforts on updating the space and increasing amenities. It renewed the lease using broker Newmark Knight Frank, which had brokered both the original Willis deal and its previous office space. Renovation then moved forward using architect Gensler and general contractor J.C. Anderson.

Crane and Leddin praised the contractor, particularly for finding ways to redo the whole space while the lawyers still worked there.

“Every week we would move eight people out of their offices. They would knock out those offices, and we’d move the next eight. It was just a constant revolving door,” Leddin said.

Hanging out

If there’s one room that best represents the firm’s vision for the renovation, it’s the lounge.

The large, central gathering area was constructed out of the former employee café, two secretarial workstations and a server room that fell out of use after the firm moved to cloud storage. A wall slides open into the café to make a larger space for receptions and other events.

It’s a simple room. Couches, a view of the booming West Loop, a few bottles to crack into after the day is done. But it has that intangible vibe of a place where people want to be.

“Almost every evening, there’ll be people in here hanging out. The attorneys are here after 5 o’clock instead of going off to a bar, because this is just as nice or nicer of a space as where they’d be going,” Crane said. “They’re talking and getting to know each other, maybe with people they don’t normally work with. They’re probably learning from each other and hearing the war stories of the older lawyers. That’s something we were hoping would happen in the space, and something that really works.”

Setting the proper mood for the lounge was important, Leddin said.

“When you come in through reception and you come up here, it’s a modern vibe, but it’s a warm space too,” he said, emphasizing the goal of an environment that’s both contemporary and welcoming.

Although the firm reused existing furniture for attorney offices, paralegals and staff each got new modern chairs and workspaces, and the paralegal rooms that were previously closed off were converted into an open workspace.

With technology bringing the end to bulky onsite servers and room after room of litigation paperwork that once required the firm to reinforce the floor, Segal McCambridge was able to add workspace while going from 78,000 to 64,000 square feet.

Work was completed in August 2018. The lounge gets hopping around 5.