Leading a Law Firm in Changing Times
Innovation, flexibility, and empathy are essentialto success, firm leaders say
Minnesota Law alumni leading law firms and offices are navigating a rapidlychanging world and profession. They’re contending with rising salaries, a press for work-life balance and greater diversity, and even existential questions about how or whether to return to the office.
Much of the change comes in the wake of a global pandemic that forced law firms to work remotely. The police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, which sparked racial and social justice movements across the country and around the world, is also driving change.
Recognizing the transformative impact of the past few years on the traditional way many firms worked, alumni leaders say flexibility, compassion, and empathy are key to adapting to this fluid new environment.
The need to change inevitably collides with a profession that often, by training, resists or is suspicious of change, says Peter Michaud ’97, chair-elect at Ballard Spahr LLP. “It is challenging but I think also an exciting time,” Michaud says. “We have come to realize that the path is not always the same for every person.”
“It is challenging but I think also an exciting time,” Michaud says. “We have come to realize that the path is not always the same for every person.”
What worked for firms and clients in the past is not the only way to get things done, says Eva Weiler ’04, managing partner of the Orange County, Calif., office of Shook, Hardy & Bacon.
“For me, it’s trying to recognize that maybe the old school pattern of working in the office for X number of hours, Y days per week is perhaps antiquated, and we need to rethink how the actual attorney population that’s working for us now wants to live,” Weiler said.
Roshan Rajkumar ‘00, managing partner of Bowman and Brooke’s Minneapolis office and chair of the firm’s diversity and inclusion committee, said the office now includes 11 attorneys and staff members working remotely. In 2018, that number was zero.
“This is us being flexible,” Rajkumar says. “It's keeping me up at night just trying to figure out, how do we keep everyone together? When change happens, you have to be willing to meet it.”
Several alumni leaders of large and mid-sized law firms and offices shared their perspectives on the issues they are addressing to better position their firms in this new world.
All of the alumni leaders interviewed said their firms raised associate starting salaries in the last two years.
Kristin Zinsmaster ’10, hiring partner in the Minneapolis office of Jones Day, said that, like other global and national law firms in the Twin Cities, Jones Day has made a “dramatic” adjustment to starting associate salaries over the last several years.
“We are trying to recruit the best talent and we recognize that most people coming out of law school have student loans and other bills to pay,” Zinsmaster says.
At Maslon LLP, the Minneapolis firm made two significant upward salary adjustments last year, says Keiko Sugisaka ’96, chair of the firm’s governance committee. The highest starting salary for law firms in the Twin Cities now is $220,000, compared to approximately $170,000 at the beginning of 2021.
Higher pay, however, can increase billing pressure on associates when firms also raise their billable hour goals, as Maslon did, Sugisaka says. Maslon, though, credits up to 100 hours of pro bono work as billable and is adding diversity, equity, and inclusion work to count toward billable hour goals.
Barbara Duffy ‘89, president of Lane Powell PC in Seattle, says the firm took a unique approach to associate compensation changes, increasing salaries and bonuses while also lowering required billable hours from 1,850 to 1,750. Associates can receive credit for 100 hours of pro bono, diversity, equity and inclusion and wellbeing efforts. They also get bonuses for working more hours, but the firm caps the number of hours for which bonuses are available.
“We don’t think our associates do their best work in their 2,450th hour,” Duffy says. “We’re just trying to create the right incentives while not creating an environment where all incentives are to just bill, bill, bill.”
In Minneapolis, Bowman and Brooke raised its starting salary to $130,000, up from $115,000, Rajkumar says. But even with the increase, Bowman and Brooke, a national litigation boutique firm, finds it difficult to compete with the $200,000 starting pay at higher grossing national firms. To boost recruiting, Rajkumar counts on the firm’s ability to offer work-life balance and immediate opportunities for litigation and client connections.
“The top-of-their-class first-, second- and third-year associates who have really good GPAs and so forth, especially if they’re diverse, they’re going to where the money is,” Rajkumar says. “This means we’ve been focusing on talent from firms smaller than us or the same size, so it’s changed how we’re going after people.”
Back to the office?
Only one of the firms interviewed—Jones Day’s Minneapolis location—is back in the office five days a week, albeit with significant flexibility afforded to both lawyers and staff. The firm, with 40 lawyers in Minneapolis and more than 2,500 around the world, is not recruiting based on a promise of hybrid work.
“We believe that law is best practiced—the craft of practicing law, if you will, is best developed—and our clients are best served when lawyers are in connection with each other,” Zinsmaster says. “We think that is most easily and authentically achieved when we're in the office, collaborating.”
Working remotely offers some benefits, and the Jones Day office largely operated efficiently and cost-effectively during pandemic-related shutdowns, says Zinsmaster. “But we're balancing those against what we really feel is a need to work together in person to build the lasting friendships and the long-term commitment to our team and the institution, and we think this is the way to do it,” she says.
Zinsmaster says this approach has worked for the law students she has interviewed.
“People who experienced online school seem hungry for an opportunity to be in person,” Zinsmaster says. “They tell us and we see it because they’re here, they’re ready to be in person, which we welcome.”
In contrast, Bowman and Brooke’s office stayed fully remote through the summer of 2022, but Rajkumar, his partners, and non-attorney directors have begun discussing a possible return to the office two days a week this fall.
“Everyone’s asking why do this when everyone’s being productive and the numbers are showing 2022 is going to be a great year for the firm as a whole,” Rajkumar says. “But at the same time, there’s something lost when we’re not seeing each other, when associates don’t come up to my door to ask a question or I can’t grab them to go have a coffee or a lunch.”
Those taking care of vulnerable adults or sick children, for example, will get some consideration. “We’re going to have compassion in that regard,” Rajkumar says.
Some recent hires are accepting less money to work remotely, Rajkumar says, coming in only as needed for meetings or social events. On a given day, approximately 30 to 40 people are in the office.
Maslon would like people to be in the office three days a week, but Sugisaka says there is flexibility with that standard. “We understand lots of things happen in people’s lives where that may not work in a given week.”
The firm continues to see the value in bringing people together in person. Practice leaders are having in-office meetings with their groups, and Maslon offers on-site training programs and is intentional about establishing mentoring relationships for associates if those are not developing naturally, Sugisaka says. The firm also offers opportunities on pro bono cases or affinity bar work to help develop networks and professional skills.
Shook, Hardy & Bacon’s Orange County office is encouraging attorneys to work on site three days a week, Weiler says.
“There’s a fundamental attitude change that’s occurred,” Weiler says. “People have gotten accustomed to working at home and are quite productive and efficient, depending on the person. We’re still figuring out what makes the most sense for our teams, whether it’s litigation-specific, case-specific or team-specific. There’s much more flexibility to what we’re doing now.”
Lane Powell has embraced a flexible, hybrid work environment, Duffy says, with workforce survey data supporting that choice. The firm has reduced its office space in both Seattle and Portland.
“It’s our way of putting our money where our mouth is,” Duffy says of the smaller office footprint. “We just cannot lose our connection to each other because it’s vital to high-functioning teams and great client service.”
Practice teams are scheduling events and workplace meetings one day per week, Duffy says, as well as bringing people into the office for a purpose, such as on-site trainings, to keep teams bonded. The firm encourages associates to attend in-office events and to work in the office most days for their first eight weeks to get to know their teams.
Ballard Spahr also has adopted a hybrid model of three days per week in the office.
“I think the days of attorneys being expected to be in the office five days a week is a thing of the past,” Michaud says. “I don’t see that ever coming back, because we’ve seen now that we can work from home and be productive and still do what our clients need us to do.”
Culture is an important part of a firm, too, and nothing builds culture and collaboration like working in person, Michaud says. Ballard Spahr takes steps to make sure that attorneys interact when they are in the office, having lunches brought in or setting up happy hours in the common areas of the office.
“People work hard, and they really are trying their best,” says Michaud, who will succeed Ballard Spahr chair Mark Stewart in January 2024. “There are so many things going on in the world that can get in the way of doing your job and we want to help people through that. The one word that I think has made a difference in Mark’s leadership and, honestly the one thing that I will focus on when I become chair, that will be important to me, is empathy.”
Newer attorneys are more vocal about their desire for work-life balance. They want to see and take part in diversity initiatives and work with diverse colleagues. Some associates and even senior attorneys are ambivalent about working toward partnership.
“Many law students and associates who might be transferring in are looking for greater autonomy in their ability to kind of dictate what they’re doing and not doing,” Weiler, of Shook, Hardy & Bacon’s Orange County office says. “There seems to be a greater desire to shape the way their work-life balance exists.”
At Maslon, where partner Steve Schleicher served pro bono as a special prosecutor in the Floyd murder trial, Sugisaka says younger attorneys want to do “meaningful work.”
“They want to have the opportunity to work where they can make a broader impact on social issues,” Sugisaka says. “The murder of George Floyd really heightened the awareness of racial equity issues in a way that probably hasn’t been matched since the ‘60s.”
Diversity among the firm’s ranks is of great interest to summer associates at Ballard Spahr, where Michaud will be first openly gay person to serve as the firm’s chair.
“Law schools in general are more diverse and because law students are interacting with a more diverse group of people, they’re seeing the value in that, and that matters to them,” Michaud says. “I’m a diverse person, so it’s top of mind to me. We are very focused on diversity and making sure that we do not just hire diverse attorneys but that we create an atmosphere where they are valued and want to stay.”
The market for diverse attorneys is highly competitive, Rajkumar says, adding that recruits to Bowman and Brooke in Minneapolis often get hired away for substantially more money. He and partners in other offices have found some success in reaching out to diverse counterparts at other firms or in the public sector.
The traditional model of working late nights and weekends for a shot at a partnership is not what many students and some experienced attorneys want now, Michaud says.
“In the last few years, students are more likely to tell us what they want and tell us what they’re looking for, and that’s a good thing,” Michaud says. “They want work-life balance and some associates want to know if there’s flexibility in how much that they have to work, flexibility in terms of even maybe they don’t want to be partner.”
Weiler also senses that changing attitude toward partnership.
“I think that quite possibility is a reality but I’ve had no one with the chutzpah to actually say it,” Weiler says.
Rajkumar has heard that, from newer attorneys and from partners who left other firms to join Bowman and Brooke as senior counsel. In 68 attorney interviews from February through July, only three candidates asked about partnership track.
“Many people are saying, ‘If I don’t want to be on the partnership track, is that okay?’” Rajkumar says. “For me, it is. I’ve had to teach my partners within the firm that it’s okay. There are a lot of people who want the work-life balance or they just want the flexibility and they don’t want the responsibility of business development or leadership.”
Todd Nelson is a freelance writer in Lake Elmo, Minnesota.