By Lizzy McLellan for Law.com
The Shift: The Changing Face of Law Firm Strategy
It’s a question every law firm leader should be able to answer: Who’s the next person to take my job?
The latest examples of leadership changes and C-suite evolution at law firms suggest it’s a question people are beginning to answer with a more thoughtful and open-minded approach.
By representing historically underrepresented groups and expanding business-minded leadership roles, law firms are slowly but surely creating a new generation of industry leaders that looks much different from the last.
The most recent leadership changes across the legal industry provide a sampling of how firms are breaking the mold in choosing who will take the reins.
Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer recently named as its U.S. regional managing partner a lawyer who joined the firm laterally just one year ago. Sarah Solum made the jump from Davis Polk & Wardwell in 2020, and helped the U.K.-born firm quickly build its presence on the West Coast.
Solum and her firm called the appointment an affirmation of their commitment to California, a highly competitive legal market. And Freshfields also noted that Solum makes for yet another high-profile female leader at the firm, whose senior partner, Georgia Dawson, made history last year as the first woman to lead a Magic Circle firm.
Freshfields is in good company. A number of other large and boutique firms have seen women climb into their top leadership ranks recently. Some of these—Sidley Austin, Susman Godfrey and Murphy & McMonigle—marked two firsts by appointing women of color to top firmwide leadership. Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler, an Am Law 200 firm, now boasts an all-female C-suite, headed up by co-chair and managing partner Lisa Cleary.
The increasing diversity at the top is notable, but it’s not the only thing that makes these appointments interesting.
Sidley’s chair-elect, Yvette Ostolaza, was a lateral hire in 2013 and she’s based in Dallas, rather than the firm’s native Chicago. Susman Godfrey’s Kalpana Srinivasan is based in Los Angeles, rather than Houston, where her three predecessors were based. Elizabeth Davis, of Murphy & McMonigle, joined her firm just three years ago, coming from nearly a decade at the Commodity Futures Trading Commission.
The next generation of leaders aren’t just lifers with decades of experience at their firms, and they aren’t just hometown stars. That opens a lot of doors for fresh perspectives.
Effective leadership is more focused on where a firm is going than where it has been, as these examples show. And that extends to the rest of the C-suite, where chairs and managing partners are placing more trust in business-focused C-suite professionals to spearhead their strategic initiatives.
Eversheds Sutherland recently created three new C-suite and administrator positions to put into action the strategy it devised to carry the firm through 2023. They include a chief transformation officer, global head of digital marketing, and a U.S. chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer.
“It’s this idea that the way we’ve provided services in the past won’t always be the way we’re doing it,” managing partner Mark Wasserman told Law.com.
Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner’s chief operating officer, Jason Marty, joined the firm in January to help the firm execute a strategic plan it had developed over two years with help from consultancy McKinsey & Co. Importantly, Marty wasn’t alone in that work. The firm also appointed an existing partner, Sean Odendahl, to work with him as chief transformation officer.
“Sometimes there is just a need and an opportunity for a fresh set of eyes and some insight that reflects not just the legal industry but professional services and, more broadly, corporate trends,” Marty said. “The legal industry, in general, lags the rest of the business community in taking advantage of things like automation.”
Some of these C-suite roles are common now, but were unheard of at law firms in the past. And even the ones that are more commonplace, like COO, didn’t always have the same influence they do now.
Strong law firms were built on a foundation of expert legal advice, which only lawyers can provide. But with that foundation in place, big corporate clients are now seeking more business-focused imperatives—true progress in diversity, equity and inclusion; forward-thinking legal service delivery and pricing arrangements; trusted advisers who can help them achieve their vision. That requires help from people who are experts in those areas. Some may be lawyers, but many are business professionals who have never practiced law.
Is there a risk of having too many cooks in the kitchen? Sure, if the kitchen is small, poorly equipped, or only serves a few people.
But in a popular gourmet restaurant with top-of-the-line tools and ingredients, a team of trained professionals can ensure that those winning elements are all maximized. If each person has a well-defined role, a clear understanding of the task at hand and respect for their colleagues’ work, it makes for a five-star meal.