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November 7, 2007

Managing Partner Roundtable—Part I

It's time for our second roundtable, and somehow we nabbed three more of the top law firm chiefs in town. (We like to think it's our charm that draws these stars, but it might have something to do with the fine cuisine at Il Mulino, our host for the event.) We talked hot law firm topics with:
  • Bill Charyk, Managing Partner, Arent Fox
  • Vic DeSantis, Managing Partner, White & Case DC Office
  • Karl Racine, Managing Partner, Venable
They were joined by a pair of fine Bisnow sponsors: John Niehoff, head of the law firm practice of accounting power Beers & Cutler; and Greg McCavera, co-chair of the global law firm practice at real estate goliath Jones Lang LaSalle.

The Bisnow crew had our jackets off, 'cause we work hard at these things. The guests of honor, from left: Greg, Vic, John, Karl, and Bill.

Mark Bisnow, our resident emcee, threw out the questions:
Let's start with the subject of what we sometimes still call branch offices. How do you manage the relationship?
Bill: We have only two branch offices, New York and LA, but we've been developing better sensitivity--appreciating local holiday schedules, what have you. Maybe you have to explain the compensation system in more detail, simply because you don't have 20 years of trust built up.
Vic: In most cases, when our new offices were established, a partner from an existing office like New York, Washington, or London was sent to reside there. And for us that's an important part of maintaining the culture, but also addressing some of these nuts and bolts issues on compensation, local market, and local sensitivities.
Karl: We followed that model after some time. Mike Schatzow, of our Baltimore office, is in New York City at least three days a week. Bob Bolger, of the DC office, travels to L.A. two or more weeks a month, and several other lawyers travel extensively. Our Chairman, Jim Shea, travels to all of our offices on a regular basis.
Vic: Our new chairman started out in our New York office, but had also been in our Moscow office, Istanbul, and Jakarta. I asked him once how they got him to go to all those places. And he said, "Look, if I had my family with me, that's my joy." Moving was something of an adventure. He felt it was a growth experience. Not everybody's like that.
So how do you incentivize people? Do you lean on them and say it's sort of your turn to take one for the team?
Karl: Many of our partners want to assist the growth of our offices. We've found that the lawyers who commit to being physically present in New York City and L.A. have had great success in their own practices.
Karl grew up in the same Port-au-Prince town as musician Wyclef Jean. He worked in the White House Counsel's office during Clinton's second term, and has been Managing Partner at Venable for a year and a half.
How do you measure the performance of branch offices, if at all?
Bill: You can look at branch offices as individual profit centers and as being susceptible to a profitability analysis. Maybe a sound idea, from the standpoint of business management. But in terms of people management, it can be threatening. And it may not be as useful as more sophisticated ways of accounting.
Vic: We keep data in a lot of different ways with respect to offices and the firm as a whole. But you shouldn't get overly focused on data kept on a regional basis or a practice basis or however you want to keep it. We view our goal as increasing performance worldwide and that's not an office-focused thing.
Karl: Our own experience is that we certainly don't want to spend too much time focusing on the profitability of the individual offices. What we're seeking to do, which I think White & Case has done well, is really be one firm. And we try to never use the term "branch." Who wants to work in a "branch?"
So what do you call them? The LA office?
Karl: Our LA office.
But you still claim to be a Washington firm?
Karl: That's right. Like Arent Fox, we want to be a national firm headquartered in Washington DC.
And how about White & Case? Do you consider yourself a New York firm or an international firm?
Vic: I like to refer to us as an international firm with Wall Street roots. New York is still an engine that drives a firm and it's still the place where you have the most lawyers.
What are the factors that go into deciding whether you should have a new office? How much is that studied, what's the process for making that decision?
Karl: For us, the factors are simply whether we have the business in terms of our current client base and whether we can attract new clients to make that office viable. The other factor is getting a consensus within the firm that we need to open a New York and LA office. And that's where the hard work really occurs.
Bill: It also depends on your capacity for delayed gratification. White & Case has been successful--it's enormous. A smaller firm that doesn't have a track record of many successful branch offices will have a much shorter new horizon before it needs to see profits. And so you might forego some opportunities you'd engage in if you had the capacity to wait longer.
Il Mulino
The Lansburgh
Cardinal Bank
Arent Fox
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