Forum Magazine: Pricing Officer Profile — Bree Johnson of Robins Kaplan

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We’ve all heard an exhausting amount about the systemic changes that law firms are experiencing in today’s market, but perhaps no part of a law firm has seen the impact more directly than those roles involved with practice innovation and client value delivery.

This may sound a bit odd at first — very few law firms actually have roles with those titles. Make no mistake, however, an ever-growing number of law firms are creating high-level roles focused on legal project management (LPM) and pricing to fulfill exactly these functions.

To highlight just how rapidly this transition has been happening, we spoke with Bree Johnson, Chief Strategy, Pricing, and LPM Officer at the Minneapolis-based law firm Robins Kaplan, who about five years ago was not even working in a law firm setting.

A licensed attorney, Johnson graduated from law school at the height of the Great Recession, when many law firms were greatly reducing their hiring of young associates, if they hired any. She spent the first several years of her career working for a legal services vendor but kept an eye toward working more fully in law.

During that same time, legal project management was beginning to truly find its legs as a discipline within law firms. What Johnson liked best about her vendor work was the ability to manage projects, resource models and budget. “Moving to a law firm, getting a little bit closer to the law while also retaining what I enjoy most about my work was a great opportunity,” she says. “It got me out at the forefront of these pricing and LPM roles.”

“We’re here to be a strategic adviser to both the firm’s partners and our clients.”

Johnson’s career has ascended rapidly as the prevalence of these roles has evolved. In just five years, she’s worked at three different law firms and has moved from manager to director and ultimately to a C-level role. This level of mobility is not uncommon in these roles. At a recent annual meeting of influential pricing and project management professionals, a good portion of the discussion centered around how to find the talent needed for these roles to be successful.

Having her law degree puts Johnson among a small minority of pricing and LPM professionals. Most such allied professionals within law firms come from business or finance backgrounds, with many having worked in pricing roles in other industries. But she can foresee an increasing number of attorneys turning toward these kinds of nontraditional roles. “Law schools are turning out more attorneys than there are practicing positions, especially in Am Law 200 firms,” she notes. “So I think we will see more lawyers taking these alternative paths — but it is pretty unique right now.”


Bree Johnson of Robins Kaplan

That’s not to say that she doesn’t see the advantages in having her law degree. “I think of myself as a business professional first and as a JD second,” Johnson explains. “Depending on my audience, I may say I’m a licensed attorney first because attorneys see that as a sort of credibility builder. That’s my ability to open the door, and then the rest is up to me and what I bring to the table.”

Establishing credibility with attorneys who are skeptics by nature isn’t the only challenge Johnson faces in her daily work, and she cites “changing behavior” as her biggest day-to-day challenge. “Most of my time is spent on progressive work: the changing industry, things clients demand from us that are new, alternative fee arrangements, the impact technology will have on our business and how I can better future-proof the firm.” She is quick to acknowledge that lawyers are creatures of habit and precedent, and implementing change within their ranks can be tough. “We’re seeing momentum, however,” she observes. “I think the industry will continue to change and adapt to where we can more readily change and modify how attorneys practice.”

Johnson also faces hurdles being a woman in a leadership role within a law firm. “It’s absolutely difficult being a woman in this role, but the tide is changing,” she says, adding that law firms are working on improving diversity and inclusion on both the attorney side as well as the operations side, and she doesn’t dwell on those difficulties. “My goal is to make sure everyone on my team feels empowered and that they have visibility and opportunities,” she says, adding that despite the challenges, “it’s worth it.”

Beyond the change she’s had to implement within the firm, she also had to adapt herself. In particular, she found that the skeptical nature of being a lawyer is something she’s had to “unlearn” in her career. “It’s not very collaborative,” she explains, adding that she feels she’s had to learn to embrace risk more. “I’m dealing with degrees of risk as opposed to trying to mitigate all risks.” Indeed, with so much of pricing and LPM being so nascent, there is an inherent amount of experimentation, which requires a degree of calculated risk that cannot be avoided.

Establishing credibility with attorneys who are skeptics by nature isn’t the only challenge Johnson faces in her daily work, and she cites “changing behavior” as her biggest day-to-day challenge.

Those risks create opportunities as well. By its nature, LPMs must seek to understand how lawyers do their work. This also provides opportunities to innovate. “The more efficiently and effectively somebody can find an answer, the lower the price point the client will see, which means the client will see more value driven in the synthesis and analysis of the legal issue, as opposed to just finding the answer.”

Cross-functional innovation requires broad spectrum collaboration, and this is exactly what Robins Kaplan has tried to create, Johnson says, noting the firm has created a team of five key executive leaders that work together without silos and without the sort of politics that may exist in some organizations. “We’re just running in the same direction,” she explains. “The concept is to let attorneys do what they do best to drive outstanding results for our clients and let us handle the rest.”

This involvement in key firm strategy is something Johnson foresees as becoming an increasing part of the pricing and LPM roles. “I would go so far as to say I don’t think we’re going to see pricing and legal project management titles much longer — the role is bigger than that, and I think we will help drive firm strategy.”

Indeed, Johnson says she sees a future where, like at Robins, pricing and LPM people will be part of the core leadership team. “We’re here to be a strategic adviser to both the firm’s partners and our clients.”