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November 28, 2007


Did you think we’d had our fill already of managing partner wisdom?  Heck no, these guys know what’s happening.  Plus, we wangle a meal in the process.  Our latest blue ribbon panel, which we held over some nice tuna and pasta at Teatro Goldoni:

  • Richard Alexander, Managing Partner, Arnold & Porter;
  • Maureen Dwyer, Managing Partner, Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman; and
  • Roger Warin, Chair of the Executive Committee, Steptoe & Johnson

As always, two of our beloved sponsors were on hand:  John Niehoff, head of the law firm practice with accountants Beers & Cutler; and Tom Doughty, head of the global law firm group of real estate goliath Jones Lang LaSalle.

What are these, the chefs?  Well, yes, at least at their firms.  Richard, Roger, Maureen, John, and Tom.  Roger says that when he came to Steptoe in ‘71, he intended to stay only two to three years because the firm was at that time far too big—at 35 lawyers.  Now he’s in the executive chair at a 460-attorney shop.

Mark Bisnow did his usual Larry King imitation, sans suspenders.

Let’s start with the so-called war for talent.  How big an issue is that for you, and when did it start?


It’s front and center for all law firms right now—no matter their size, their practice, or their geographic reach.


I think it started when firms became less geographically limited.  There’s hardly an AmLaw 100 firm that doesn’t have a decent Washington office.  At least 80 of them have New York offices and probably 70 have L.A. offices.  The top firms are all fishing for talent in each other’s ponds now, so there’s far more competition for the best students.  The pool of schools has also widened.  If you can find a top-five student at almost any decent law school in America, they’re going to be considered.  That’s a change in the last ten or 15 years.


There’s also a war for talent happening at the partnership level, which has been growing more and more intense.  One of the main reasons is that law firms have become much more transparent about their compensation and financials.  It’s almost akin to what happened in baseball when we had free agency


Students have access to a lot more information, too.  They’re asking a lot of questions:  How much responsibility are they going to get in their first year?  Do they have access to pro bono work?  What perks does the firm offer?  It’s a lot more competitive for firms to distinguish themselves.  You need to look at things like diversity, you look at pro bono programs, you look at community outreach, you look at the work-life balance issues that students are interested in now. 

Usually we get a separate restaurant room for our high intellectual confabs, but somehow we were just regular diners this time.  Amazingly, we heard each other over the din.    


Another factor is the sheer number of lawyers coming in and out of law firms.  You have attrition rates at about 25% a year at some places.  If you look at any other business, you would ask how can you operate with that kind of attrition? 

What’s behind the attrition rate? 


20 years ago, people came to law firms believing that after seven or eight years they’d be partners.  Most law students don’t have that kind of eight or nine year vision.  They’re looking to get three things.  They want to make money, which is reasonable considering their debt.  They want professional development, which is a big change.  Law firms that can’t offer professional development are going to have attrition rates.  And I think work-life balance has become a real issue for law firms because we’re in a business where clients have expectations that aren’t necessarily consistent with work-life balance.

Maureen: It used to be primarily women were interested in work-life balance, but now it applies to both sexes

My kids are a microcosm of the students we’re hiring.  My oldest daughter just turned 30 but she is already in her third job.  There’s an expectation for people in their 20s that whatever job they take, it’s just their first job, and there’s going to be a second and third job. 

Maureen had been at Shaw Pittman only five years before it joined forces with Pillsbury.  Despite her short tenure, she was asked to be managing partner of the merged firm. “It was all about integration,” Maureen says, and there was a perception that her real estate group from Wilkes Artis had done a good job of integrating itself into the firm culture at Shaw Pittman.


My son worked for two years at White & Case with 30 other associates on litigation matters and said, I don’t like this.  So he left and joined the Army JAG program. And he thought that was a perfectly reasonably approach.  Of course with the war going on, it was not the right approach to his mom.  But he’s loving the responsibility, he’s loving the challenge, and he wants to end up in public service.  White & Case just couldn’t hold onto him.  And that’s the real challenge. 

How do you hold onto them?


At Pillsbury, we spend a huge amount of time training associates, doing professional development, using personal coaches, trying to get them ingrained in the culture of the firm.  The amount of time we spend on those programs compared to ten or 15 years ago is a paradigm shift

Roger: I think that the unique dynamic in Washington is that most of our entry level associates are from Chicago or Boston or someplace else.  Washington is a stimulating place to live for a few years, but in the back of their mind they’re always thinking, I’m a Red Sox fan.  I’ve got to go back to Boston at some point.  The second phenomenon is a lot of people come here and want to do government service. 

It’s great when they do that and come back.


Yes.  One of the things we’ve devoted more time to is alumni.  We hadn’t paid enough attention to alumni before, but now we are.  We have alumni events, an alumni newsletter, and a special access web site.

Why is the alumni contact important?


A number of reasons.  People often go someplace else and the grass is not as green and they come back.  A number of them go to clients, so they’re in a position to hire you.  A third reason is when they go to another city, it’s never bad to know a good lawyer there if you don’t have an office. 

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