Akin Gump Chairman Bruce McLean thinks of himself as a CEO. “I’m responsible for everything that happens at the firm, and I feel the weight of that,” he says. One of Bruce’s biggest tasks at the 1,000-lawyer operation (290 in DC) is charting the firm’s strategy—and that means identifying the “next new” practice areas before they explode, or even exist. Akin Gump’s latest bet is on greenhouse gas regulation. Bisnow dropped in on Bruce to hear more.
When he was head of the litigation department, Bruce created a rite of passage for new partners: They had to get up and sing their college fight song. One University of Arkansas grad didn’t know her tune, so she let out a Razorback pig cry instead.
Legislation on greenhouse emissions is inevitable, Bruce says: “It doesn’t matter who’s elected, or which party controls Congress. There’s going to some form of regulation, and it’s going to be complicated.” Akin Gump is studying the issue on its own dime now so that the firm will be positioned as a leader if and when Congress acts. “You just hope it’s not another Y2K,” Bruce says. If the greenhouse emissions work booms, it will be a natural extension of Akin Gump’s policy and regulation expertise, one of the “core marquee practice areas” where Akin focuses its growth plans (and most of its marketing budget). Other “high value, scalable areas” where Akin Gump hunts out growth are financial restructuring, investment funds and private equity, energy, labor and employment, and IP litigation.
Akin Gump just brought its incoming firm-wide class of 70 associates (25 from the DC office) to Dupont’s Ritz-Carlton for a two-day orientation. We aren’t sure who Bruce is calling here—maybe his wife Rachel Adams, an IP litigator at Howrey. They live in Woodley Park with their three-year old son, Max.
Beyond strategic matters, Bruce spends his time on lateral recruitment, partner issues, and relations with the firm’s largest clients. He also spots trends in associate retention—and doesn’t like what he sees. The industry’s associate attrition rate of 20‑25% (and growing) has reached what Bruce describes as an “epidemic level.” Among other reasons for it, Bruce points to the historically large gap between salaries in private practice and elsewhere. (Much bigger now then when Bruce spurned a $15,000 law firm offer for a $12,000 salary at the NLRB.) Today’s huge gulf is “drawing in more people who know they don’t want to stay.”
A key element in creating an attractive workplace, Bruce believes, is diversity. (In articles and interviews, he has disputed UCLA Prof. Richard Sander’s controversial argument that law firms set minority students up to fail by lowering grade requirements in the hiring process.) Akin Gump also has gotten behind flexible schedules, work-at-home arrangements, and a beefed-up training program to hold on to valuable associates. Promotions to counsel status at the 5-6 year mark are an “incentive to stay another year.” Bruce uses a poker analogy: “You’re trying to get them to see another card.”
These Akin Gump people know their baseball. DC partner John Dowd penned the famous “Dowd Report” on Pete Rose’s gambling habits for the Commissioner’s office. More recently, Bruce attended a Baseball Hall of Fame function where he mentioned his favorite Dodger, Roy Campanella. The next day, shrine President Dale Petroskey sent this pic of the slugging catcher.
Bruce took the Chairmanship in 1992, when Akin Gump introduced a unified compensation system after years of treating its offices as separate profit centers. The partnership elected Alan Feld as Chairman, but Alan took ill and asked Bruce to step in. Bruce has been elected to three-year terms ever since, and has two committees under him: a Management Committee of 18 (also voted in for three-year terms), and a six-member Executive Committee named by Bruce to assist with day-to-day management.