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Law Firm Leader Roundtable: Part 1

What goes on inside the minds of law firm leaders? We sat down with three of them, plus some industry experts, for a free-flowing conversation over lunch. Our participants say they want to focus on the people and culture, and they wouldn't mind if rankings, quotas and billable hours went by the wayside.


Our brain trust, at Bisnow partner Cushman & Wakefield's office:

Sherry Cushman, Cushman & Wakefield legal sector advisory group leader for the Americas & executive managing director

Roger Furey, Katten Muchin DC managing partner and member of the Executive Committee and Board of Directors

Allison Prince, Goulston Storrs administrative director of the DC office and member of the Executive Committee

Ellen Dwyer, Crowell & Moring firm managing partner and member of the Management Board

Malcolm Marshall, Cushman & Wakefield legal sector advisory group executive committee member & executive director


What is your background and practice area?

Roger: I practice in the areas of intellectual property and false advertising law, mostly litigation and a fair amount of counseling. I was asked to help out as managing partner of Katten's DC office several years ago and have been doing it ever since. I left Arter in 2001 and moved to Katten, moving from downtown to Georgetown. At the time, I was a little skeptical about becoming a "Georgetown laywer," but in a few months I grew to love Georgetown and the firm, and I decided I'd never want to leave either.

Allison: I have specialized in zoning since 1985. I started at a boutique and then ended up at a global firm as a result of a merger. I joined Goulston & Storrs in 2010 since the firm’s footprint works well for my practice. Goulston & Storrs is a full-service firm, with corporate, litigation and private client services, but 80 of about 100 partners or so practice in some area of real estate—whether it be zoning, finance, development and so on. We have offices in Boston, New York, DC and Beijing. I head the DC office as administrative director, and we have 21 lawyers and we are growing. Our firm doesn't follow the model that bigger is necessarily better, so we plan to grow in a measured way.

Ellen: I'm a labor and employment lawyer by training. My employment background allowed me to move into different leadership roles in the firm, because both are about people. I'm the managing partner of Crowell & Moring and a member of our management board. There are 500 lawyers in all of our offices—Washington is the largest with about 320 lawyers, then there are three offices on the West Coast, and one in NY, London and Brussels. I've been managing partner for around nine years and have been with Crowell for my whole professional career. I joined as the 100th lawyer. At the time, Took Crowell and Fred Moring were alive and well. On my first day, Took made this green sash that said "Number 100" with glitter glue. My mom had bought me this new suit, and it ended up completely covered in glitter. I still have the sash.

Sherry: I came to DC in 1985, so I've seen the market go through major transitions. I came from New York and my training is in commercial design. In 1993 after the market had crashed, I switched careers and got into brokerage. I have represented about 15M SF of law firm transactions around the US and have the honor of spearheading the Legal Sector Advisory Group for Cushman & Wakefield in the Americas.


How does your firm look at competition versus collaboration?

Allison: Overall, we try to build bridges with a lot of firms, even firms that might be considered direct competitors, and sometimes put teams together to pursue projects. I think that's a healthier way to practice. Millennials seem to be more of that mindset. Also people move around more now, so someone who's at another firm one week may be a good candidate for your firm a few weeks later.

Roger: Within a law firm, a collaborative environment is critical to the effective integration of laterals. It also leads to more work and makes it easier for everyone to be productive. If you have more collaboration, you have more glue, and I think that's one way to reverse the tide on people moving on so quickly from most firms. It takes work, of course, because it requires building up strong levels of trust among your lawyers so they are comfortable sharing client relationships.

Malcolm: A lot of what you are describing comes down to culture. Collaboration requires a culture of trust and communication. We have focused a lot of time over the last few years at C&W purely on business development with a "client first" focus. This involves all levels of expertise for a specific situation versus an individual singularly determining the best strategy. This collaborative culture in turn has helped with winning business and, more importantly, helping with our retention and recruiting.


Sherry: What's shocking to me is that the legal sector talks about collaboration, but they're not having business development meetings as often as most other business industries do. I just finished a 27-city tour and spoke to about 300 managing partners and COOs. When I asked how many had monthly business development meetings, only half raised their hands. Of those, less than half had meetings with all practice groups to see how they could collaborate on business synergies from client to client.

Ellen: The question is what the compensation system incentivizes. Your compensation system has to be aligned with collaboration to be successful. Ours certainly is. People get rewarded for sharing, and we've institutionalized cross-selling. I am rewarded for introducing my partners to clients. The model is a big selling point when meeting laterals.


If you had a magic wand that could change one cultural or institutional element of the legal industry, effective immediately, what would you do?

Roger: Figure out a way to have happy clients and profitable law firms without the billable hour. It's a mind-numbing drain on everyone. We lawyers enjoy having professional counseling relationships with our clients where we're just trusted advisers and nobody thinks you're trying to get something for nothing. The billable hour seems to get in the way of that type of relationship for many clients. But it would take a real magic wand to make that go away because we've been talking about that for years.

Allison: My firm isn't part of this, but I don't like the trend or dominance of quotas for associates.

Ellen: I certainly endorse what Roger and Allison described. I feel like we're on this race to nowhere with the rankings and profits per partner metrics. Transparency is a good thing but it's been destabilizing. There's an insatiable desire for more money. It puts tremendous pressure on law firms to deliver those profits and results with less ability to be flexible about the progress of development of your talent. I'd like to pull back from that and focus on our talent and our people, without worrying that your partners may leave if your PPP do not reach a certain threshold. We are all very aware of the challenges of retaining partner level talent if you cannot deliver sound economics.


Roger: I wonder sometimes if we could collectively just slow down a little in the never-ending focus on the bottom line. I'm not suggesting we all take 20% pay cuts or do 20% less work; I'm talking about just enjoying our work and recognizing how fortunate we are with how well paid we are to do something we enjoy. And not focus so much on raising our rates 5% each year so we can keep the high PPPs that we feel we need to avoid losing partners to the firms that are going to pay them an extra $200k. I suspect we would get good answers if we ask a lot of our partners if they are happy working in a place where they enjoy their practices and the people they work with, even if they could make a little more across the street.

Allison: That's why we're all so focused on culture. It's the glue. It's just like marriage: if the whole basis of it is money, you're in trouble. If that's all that is holding a law firm together—and you can sense it at various firms—those are the firms that seem to struggle.

Sherry: That's why some boutique firms are giving the big firms a run for their money. There's going to be continued growth in boutique firms as they have the ability to be more nimble, and they're getting back to basics and saying, I'm just here to practice the law that I love and not worry about all the rest. But it does depend on the practice. It’s about specialization.

Allison: We have 200 lawyers so we don’t try to be all things to all clients, but that's the collaboration piece: we send that work to the firms that will treat our clients well. And we're very committed to staying in our place in the market because so many of us have come from very large firms. We focus on culture every day: you get downgraded if you're not nice to your partners, it's part of our compensation process, we don't fight over credit. It's all of those things.