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Managing Partner Roundtable: Part 1

For our latest managing partner roundtable, we gathered seven DC managing partners to have lunch at Cushman & Wakefield and spill the beans about changes in the legal industry.


Here's our team of experts: Reed Smith DC managing partner A. Scott Bolden, Nixon Peabody DC managing partner Jeff Lesk, Garrison & Sisson co-founder Martha Ann Sisson, Navigant DC managing partner Steve Stanton, Bracewell & Giuliani DC managing partner Mark Lewis, Cushman & Wakefield executive director Malcolm Marshall (not pictured), and Cushman & Wakefield executive managing director Sherry Cushman.

On the changing face of the legal industry:

Jeff: We're increasingly functioning not just as a legal profession, but as businesses. I think the bigger question is—why did it take so long for us all to get it?

Mark: We dispense legal advice differently. There was an era where you could throw associates at something. Now clients want to talk to a partner and just want your advice, not for someone to say—let me get three people to write a memo you'll have three days later. What's not fundamentally different is that clients come to us at the end of the day for high-quality advice. 

Scott: Every client is looking for a deal at the intersection of client service and results, and value. Many of our clients are looking for some form of alternative fee arrangements; some are asking us to freeze our rates from one year to the next; some don't want to pay to train first-year associates. If we can give them value and both the lawyers and the company share the risk, you'll find GCs more than willing to engage us.


On how changes in the industry impact the business of running a law firm:

Jeff: I see clients valuing and rewarding lawyers who expand their role beyond purely technical legal services to do things like help proactively spot trends, explore what government officials in their areas are focusing on, or connect them with capital. We created a complimentary, proprietary, web-based product called the NP Capital Connector to connect investors seeking deal flow and companies needing capital. The response has been overwhelming. There have always been successful lawyers who've gone the extra mile, the difference is that this type of service is more and more becoming the basic cost of admission.

Mark: We say internally that you want to become a trusted advisor. You want your client to call you with the things that are keeping them up at night. One of the challenges of running a law firm is that some people are phenomenal lawyers but don't have the makeup to be a trusted advisor—not everyone can be Clark Clifford.

Scott: More and more, our people have to know the business of our client. It distinguishes one law firm from another with general counsels. I've also connected clients to other business opportunities; whether you represent both or either party, you may get more work down the line because you're creating or adding value to their business model and/or their bottom line.


On changing business models' implications for developing and managing talent:

Scott: I don't think it has any real impact on who we recruit from law school. At the three- to five-year mark—or even before in some cases—when associates have developed an expertise, part of our role is training them to become great client relationship lawyers. If they equip themselves well, hopefully that GC or deputy GC will ultimately be calling them directly, and there's a smooth transition from generation to generation.

Steve: We start that process in year one. For example, one of our second-year consultants met the head of an AmLaw100 litigation practice at a social function. She told him what she does, which was of interest to him, so he invited us to present to their litigation team next month. Just today, a group of us got together to discuss it. We had her at the table so she sees the importance of that interaction she had, and she will participate in the follow-through on it. It's also an important mindset that in any big firm, you want everybody to be marketing all of the practice areas, not just their own.

Malcolm: We're operating very much parallel industry-wise. We have a focus on business development training from day one. It's about how you find the individual and support them through our various training and mentoring programs.

Jeff: I think that lawyers coming out of school today are, in the course of their careers, going to be working for and with more people, changing substantive areas more, and serving on more—and more varied—client teams. They'll have to be good client developers, team builders, and innovators. We're trying to inculcate our youngest lawyers with those values and hire people who are good candidates to maneuver in this world.


On how these changes affect recruiting and hiring:

Martha Ann: In effect, law firms are now trying to replicate the skillset that the in-house lawyer possesses. It's not only substantive knowledge, but also an application of business judgment and an ability to facilitate relationships with people. The qualities you're referencing don't come to bear with associate searches because there's no tangible measure of those capabilities; you do see it in partner hiring and in-house, with GCs looking for more junior attorneys to join their team.

Perhaps a related issue: with mandatory retirement being eliminated at many law firms, there's tremendous frustration on the part of junior and mid-level partners who don't see opportunities for client exposure. Since partners are practicing longer, there isn't an incentive for the 68-year-old to bring forward the 48-year-old colleague.


On younger lawyers' approach to the legal industry:

Sherry: An AmLaw20 firm had us meet with their top 20 associates to find out what was most important to them. All 20 said their top priority was work-life balance. Another question was "where do you see yourself in 10 years?" Half of them said they have absolutely no idea, 25 percent said they'd like to be partners, and another 25 percent said they'd like to be successful somewhere else.

Jeff: You know, those results are only surprising to lawyers and the people who love them. They're not surprising to the mainstream of young professionals.

Mark: There was a time when making partner was a bit of a social compact; that compact's been broken on both sides. Sometimes there are brilliant lawyers who work hard but for whatever reason, aren't able to be made partner. Why would you bust it as hard as we did, when there's a brass ring that's perceived as not realistically attainable? At the same time, associates often have career objectives other than making partner. The real challenge is us adjusting our business model to incentivize these individuals to get the best out of them. And then, if they want to take another position in-house or in government, you really have to encourage them, because then they leave thinking good thoughts about you. Those may become future resources or clients.

Scott: I think young people have the right to say, "With this law degree, and being a business advisor, too, I'd like to be an entrepreneur." Making partner now takes a lot of hard work and a much longer time. When I made partner at Reed Smith, you were either an associate or an equity partner; now there's also counsel and fixed share partner. I don't think associates have any real negative feelings about making partner or leaving the firm, like we would—and that's not always a bad thing because they have so many more options today than I had, when I joined Reed Smith in 1991.