Law Firm Leader Roundtable, Part 2
To get managing partners' candid thoughts on changes in the legal industry (and to find out where they're vacationing this month), we sat down with law firm leaders from Katten Muchin, Crowell & Moring and Goulston & Storrs, and real estate pros from Cushman & Wakefield. (Check out more in Part 1.)
After lunch at Bisnow partner Cushman & Wakefield's K Street office, we picked the brains of our wise participants:
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 are some law firm trends you're seeing?
Ellen: We're doing a lot of secondments, which are great opportunities for junior and mid-level lawyers. It's been really fun to partner with our clients in new ways. Another trend I've seen is some of the very large firms coming in at pricing that is just astounding. I think a lot of it is about trying to capture ground; perhaps they're thinking that once they get in, they can move up the food chain again in pricing, or take that experience and market it to others. It's very destabilizing and you have to wonder if it's sustainable. As a result, firms in that space have to get much more sophisticated not just about pricing, but about managing matters so they can be profitable.
How does that impact hiring and staffing?
Roger: In terms of different staffing models, we use staff attorneys for certain types of matters. The recession forced all of us to examine what we're doing, and some in-house counsel were questioning their law firms: "We're paying $160k for a lawyer one year out of law school?" So we've used staff attorneys for certain types of engagements to give young lawyers a chance to get into a good law firm and to give clients a much lower pricing option. We are able to convert some very good staff attorneys to regular associates after a couple years.
Ellen: We've been tapping into our alumni network and less traditional sources to recruit talent. We have a lot of attorneys—women in particular, who are sitting on the sidelines after they had children—who are interested in coming back but want an alternative to the full commitment expected of law firm lawyers. They might want to write appellate briefs and get paid by the brief or by the hour, or other folks come back saying they want to work fewer hours for less money. I think increasingly law firms are going to accommodate this talent because it makes sense for everybody. What's great is that we have a whole portfolio of talent to offer clients. Using folks outside of the traditional partnership model allows us to be competitive in pricing and leverage very experienced talent.
With that shift, how do you change your training for young associates?
Ellen: We still have a bootcamp and skills-based training for our junior lawyers and other folks joining us. We've also built a different set of competencies for junior lawyers. The skill sets the firm finds important to develop today are very different than they were 20 years ago. There's much more emphasis on building relationships more quickly. Our competencies includes references to things like project management, budgeting matters, pricing and leading teams.
Sherry: I have a question for each of you: how do you compassionately fire a senior-level underperformer? Nationally, the No. 1 reason for the departure of attorneys from law firms this past year was going in-house and No. 2 was termination. I was at a managing partner forum last month where one Atlanta managing partner said they have a three-year “termination” program. Each year they sit down with the bottom 20% of performers, get to know what the attorneys' select issues for underperformance may be and try to provide them with guidance and support to help them improve. By year three, if an attorney is in the bottom 20% again, they are packing their bags.
Roger: There are some senior attorneys at every firm who've been there long enough that maybe they are simply tiring of the practice of law. But they're not ready to move on because they're making good money, so they glide. You have to watch out for that because it leads to decay. That, in turn, affects the culture of the firm and is unfair to your partners. You just have to have an honest conversation. And if you're having this type of discussion with a partner repeatedly at comp time, the firm leadership has to sit down with that person and discuss a transition to life after a law firm.
Ellen: I'm an employment lawyer and routinely advise employers on these issues often. I'd never subscribe to a three-year plan for everyone. What it's really all about in our firm is being transparent and creating an environment where you can support your partners, and they have confidence that you will support them. The law firm world is not for everybody. If folks realize they're not good at generating business and building client relationships, then you work to help them find the next place. We have the most amazing alumni network. Some of our lawyers have transitioned voluntarily, and others we have encouraged to transition. In those cases in which we have encouraged transition, we have treated our lawyers with respect and supported them to get to a place where they're successful.
What are the most interesting real estate projects going on locally or nationally?
Allison: I love the cutting-edge design of the proposed new Spy Museum at L'Enfant Plaza. The Kennedy Center expansion will be beautiful. In terms of apartment buildings, JBG's new buildings on the old Atlantic Plumbing site on V really pop when you see them; they used an architecture firm from NY that designed a lot of buildings along the Highline. Finally, CityCenter is a real place-making project. I always take different routes to work because I enjoy seeing the sites I have worked on.
Are you doing anything fun this August?
Roger: I'm going to St. Andrews with some good friends to play golf for several days.
Ellen: We're going to Sea Island off the coast of Georgia, where we've gone since 2001. Then I'm taking my oldest to college this summer at Wake Forest.
Sherry: I'm going to Paris and London for a seven-day boondoggle of just fun. I'm looking forward to it.
Interested in participating in a Law Firm Leader Roundtable here in DC? Email the guy behind the guy, behind the guy, Chris Wainwright at firstname.lastname@example.org.