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November 9, 2007

Managing Partner Roundtable—Part II

Because we know Venable Managing Partner Karl Racine well, it's hard to imagine how we could misspell his last name with a V instead of an R, as we did last issue. All we can think of is that we associate him so much with Venable, the names blurred in our fingers as we typed.  Fortunately, he’s becoming one of the best known legal figures in Washington, so we trust you safely ignored us.

We’re serving up the second part of our roundtable today, coming at you still fresh from DC’s Il Mulino restaurant.  When we left off, managing partners Bill Charyk (Arent Fox), Vic DeSantis (White & Case), and Karl Racine (Venable) were trading management insights in Il Mulino’s business-friendly atmosphere.  (They save the dimmed lights for dinner.)  Two fine Bisnow sponsors—John Niehoff (head of the law firm practice with accountants Beers & Cutler) and Greg McCavera (co-chair of the global law firm practice at Jones Lang LaSalle)lent an outside perspective.

Karl Racine, with an R.

Do you need to be a certain size before you can compete in financial centers like New York and London?
Greg: One thing we’re hearing from our clients is that there’s a magic number of 200 lawyers in New York.  Is that something any of you think about?

In terms of the combined sizes in London and New York, I don’t think anybody’s bigger than we are.  We’ve got almost 380 in London.  More than 400 in New York. London is a very important place for us. We’re very focused on growing there.

Bill: I’ve heard the list of law firms whose names don’t begin with W that have actually been profitable in London is a pretty short list.  It’s sort of like Beijing.

Why’s that?

Bill: The largest law firm in London a couple of years ago was Arthur Andersen.  That used to be the issue, but it’s not the case now.  The impression I have is that you do it because you have to, but it’s not a very profitable endeavor unless  you reach a certain size.

John keeps a watch on Bill’s hands, which are more dangerous than they look—Bill is a student of southern-style Chinese Kung Fu.  His martial arts teacher wanted to instruct him solely in Chinese, so Bill learned the language.  He’s fluent in English, too.

Vic: We’ve gone through all stages.  When we were smaller, we had good relations with certain clients that provided a steady diet of work in the high end.  It took a while, but now we’re competing successfully against the magic circle firms and doing quite well.  But what you’ve heard is consistent with what we know of London—it’s a tough place to make money

As to a magic number for New York City, we think in terms of practice group size instead.  Our experience is that successful groups require at least a dozen lawyers in order to have the experience and depth to service client needs.  As we seek to establish litigation, bankruptcy, real estate and intellectual property practices, we can easily envision a New York City office with 60-80 lawyers

Are you seeing cultural differences between younger and the older generations at firms? 

Karl: I think that the young lawyers clearly want to be involved in the firm’s most sophisticated work.  They want to work with the firm’s best lawyers, they want to have challenging assignments.  They value a culture that is civil, harmonious and fun.  I’m not sure that’s changed over the years.  We are not seeing any drop off in the work ethic of our young lawyers. 

It’s not that they’re less patient than previous generations? 

Karl: I haven’t experienced that.

Vic (right) has been in the managing partner role for four years at White & Case’s D.C. office.  The firm has 170 lawyers in DC and over 2,000 worldwide, but that’s small potatoes to Greg.  Jones Lang LaSalle has 28,000 employees in 160 cities.

John: I don’t know about patience, but we had a professor speak to our partners about the new generation and the fact that they might need a little more attention.  Because they’re used to getting attention.  People gave them trophies just for showing up.  But what I see is, they’re are coming in and working hard.


I think there’s less tolerance for the old style partner who might have said, “Do it, do it now, don’t whine about it.”  They want to know the bigger picture.  Maybe it’s things like “,” but their eyes are open to other opportunities.  There’s also some questioning of things that we never bothered to question.  I don’t hear associates bragging about, ‘I have 2,400 hours.’  As if to say, what is that to brag about? 

I note that attendance at our associate meetings is up—and that’s really a reflection of the desire to meaningfully participate in the growth of the firm.  They are genuinely interested in law firm's vision for the future, the firm's culture, as well as its commitment to the community. 


Last question in our Lightning Round:  What impact are you feeling of new technology on your office operations? 


We’re contemplating what to do with CMS and some other systems where you organize client data.  The tricky thing is, it requires input from attorneys—and forcing that to happen isn’t always easy.

Karl: The CRM systems are only as good as the lawyers who utilize the technology.  Bill's point about getting the buy in from our colleagues cannot be understated.  All the tools in the world are ineffective if the lawyers choose to not use them. 
Vic: Technology also creates a degree of reliance, which I think a lot of lawyers are uncomfortable with, on non-legal professionals.  You need a lot of people who understand this stuff, can explain it to lawyers, and also deal with issues when things go wrong.
Karl: Yet another hazard of technology is that some lawyers rely too much on it.  We always remind our lawyers of how important it is to get to know each other.  Walk down the hall, meet for coffee, have a personal interaction, rather than typing an email to your colleague.
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