Back to the future

Dentons modernizes new Willis Tower offices, but doesn’t forget its past

September 2019
By Katie Rentz
Chicago Lawyer correspondent

Dentons completed its search for new office space to accommodate its growing needs with a literal 20-story plunge into the future.

Through a lengthy series of all-office meetings, open discussions and a survey distributed to staff which covered more than two years, the firm decided it was time to take the next step forward from its previous location on the 76th to 83rd floors of the Willis Tower.

Although serious consideration was given to moving elsewhere downtown, Dentons ultimately decided to maintain its strong roots in the Tower by moving down to a newly refurbished home on the 58th to 60th floors.

In addition to its city views and downtown location, the Willis Tower itself holds a special place in the firm’s heart, as Dentons represented Sears when it first acquired the building.

“We ended up staying in the Tower because people were passionate about being here,” said partner Leah Bruno of the firm’s decision to stay. “[There’s] a lot of pride involved in bringing our clients to a space we helped develop and showing them how beautiful the city of Chicago can be.”

However, this celebration of the firm’s past is paired with its vision for what’s in store with a variety of technological improvements made to the new space.

“We certainly have a great deal of pride in where we were, and we aren’t trying to abandon that in any respect, but we wanted to come along with our clients into the future,” Bruno said.

Both energy-saving and water-saving elements have been added in the design, helping the firm be more ecologically responsible while proving to be a financial benefit as well. New “hydration stations” are just one example, providing cold, hot or sparkling water while reducing waste.

The technological advances which accompanied the move can also be considered impressive. Conference rooms are now fully equipped with features such as microphones in the ceiling, video chatting apparatuses, privacy screens for confidential discussions and screen-sharing technology, connecting Dentons’ attorneys and clients around the globe.

Encouraging collaboration has been one of the main focuses of the new design. Gathering spaces, kitchens, a main cafe, espresso bars and islands with barstools have all been installed with the hopes of creating more casual and comfortable group workspaces.

Attorneys’ private offices have also been modernized. Glass walls with a grayish tint to allow some privacy are now in; gone are the traditional solid walls and wooden doors.

The new look is an effort to promote accessibility to peers and clients as well as an environment of transparency and openness but avoid a fishbowl atmosphere. As a bonus, the new open look has allowed for natural light to reach beyond the perimeter offices.

But when four solid walls are needed, there are designated privacy rooms for both employees and clients.

Though these glass offices initially took some adjustment, the firm’s transition to a brighter, more collaborative environment has been appreciated by staff and clients alike, Bruno said.

“Everyone is happier in this space,” said Bruno. “I think it’s created a much better environment for everyone across the board.”

The new office design also promoted a collaborative environment through a growing concept in office design: All offices are exactly 165 square feet large. This has removed some of the hierarchy within the firm and allowed for more of a team-oriented approach with client cases.

The traditional corner offices were converted to “huddle rooms” where smaller, impromptu discussions and collaboration sessions can occur, allowing any staff members without perimeter offices to take advantage of the skyline view and natural light afforded by the office’s location.

Bruno couldn’t provide a specific total of square footage the firm lost from its move down the building, but notes every part of the office is being better utilized.

“We moved into space that had a much smaller footprint,” she said. “But it was not because we were reducing our forces, but we recognized what we were doing up there was no longer necessary.”

Another major innovation implemented in Dentons’ new home was born of necessity. Dentons has more than 10,000 lawyers spread nationally and internationally. Its Chicago hub is often full of visiting attorneys and clients, as well as being the firm’s third-largest U.S. branch in terms of head count, according to Bruno. Though these visitors don’t need permanent office space, they often need a private area to work or make phone calls on a temporary basis. Dentons has accommodated these needs through its use of “hoteling” spaces, small private areas designed for travelers and guests to use.

“We were trying to test out some things and set a precedent that could be used in other offices around the country,” Bruno said. “That is one of the elements of what we have here that has been adopted and used successfully everywhere else as well.”

But despite the upgrades found in its new home, Dentons hasn’t forgotten where it started and its roots.

The prominent placement of artwork in its offices is just one example of Dentons’ connection with its past. “Most of it, if not all, came with us from the space we had above,” Bruno said. “A lot of thought went into putting the artwork out in a way that it could be better represented.”

A hallway on the 59th floor now showcases the firm’s legacy by displaying its former leaders. Another new addition features large murals on the 58th and 60th floor, highlighting artistic views of Chicago at its ground level and its skyline view and emphasizing the firm’s long-standing connection to the Windy City.

Although the new design features a variety of improvements that many believe have boosted office morale and benefited both attorneys and support staff, Dentons’ primary concern with the new design continues to be its clients.

“We are cognizant of the fact that our clients look at our space as a reflection of our firm, and so we wanted something that showed them that we are responsive to their needs,” Bruno said.