ON LEADERSHIP: As Law Becomes More Complex, Teaming Becomes More Crucial, Says Eric Garner, Managing Partner at Best Best & Krieger

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On Leadership

We begin a new monthly column, On Leadership, created by Rose Ors for Thomson Reuters. Each month will feature conversations with law firm Chief Executive Officers and Managing Partners about how they are leading their law firms in today’s dramatically changing and highly competitive legal industry.

In this installment, Rose Ors speaks with Eric Garner, Managing Partner at California-based law firm, Best Best & Krieger (BBK), about creating a one-firm culture, respecting individuals, and the value of teaming.

Rose Ors: When you became the managing partner of the firm, what was your mandate?

Eric Garner: When I became managing partner in November 2005, my mandate was two-fold. One was to create a one-firm culture. Second, was to protect and cement the one-firm culture while establishing a strong presence outside of the Inland Empire.

We have been able to do both successfully. For many years now, our people have thought of themselves as part of BB&K rather than part of a particular office. Today, more than two-thirds of our attorneys work outside the Inland Empire.

Rose Ors: How did you go about achieving a one-firm culture?

Eric Garner: In 2005, each office operated autonomously. I focused on leading the effort to connect the offices both culturally and operationally. We standardized both our internal processes and the external services we provide.

Rose Ors: What benefits did you realize?

Eric Garner: Externally, the biggest benefit has been in client service and client service efficiency. When a firm grows from one or two offices to 10 offices, coordination is key. Clients depend on their outside counsel to give them advice without reinventing the wheel. When a client calls us with a pressing issue, we have the technical and work processes that allow us to reach out across all our lawyers to get the best advice quickly and efficiently.

Internally, the one-firm culture provides more energy around camaraderie and team focus. As the law becomes ever more complex, that teaming is ever more crucial. The benefits of it can’t be overstated.

Rose Ors: How would you describe the firm’s culture?

Eric Garner: Our culture emphasizes two primary values — great client service and respect for the individual. I strongly believe it is because of these values that many of us have spent our entire careers at BB&K. I think we have a much higher percentage of “lifers” than you would find in most law firms.

Rose Ors: How do those two values contribute to BB&K’s success?

Eric Garner: Providing great service to a client base of public agencies and small-to-medium-size businesses allows our employees to see just how much their work matters. For example, our public agency work has a direct impact on the communities those clients serve. The lawyers and other professionals in our firm who work with these clients find great personal satisfaction in serving a public purpose.

on leadership

Eric Garner, Managing Partner at Best Best & Krieger

Respect for the individual has been a foundational value since the firm’s inception. This in turn has attracted talent with diverse backgrounds and experiences. Even though we are routinely ranked among the most diverse firms in the United States, for many years we never had a stated goal around diversity. It just started decades ago, and it is who we are.

I believe that we are a wonderful example of the power of diversity. Our diversity has been a key competitive advantage. It is one of the reasons we have established strong and lasting relationships with our biggest client base, public agencies. These agencies have always been very diverse. Trying to meet their level of diversity provided us an early strategic advantage that continues to benefit us.

Rose Ors: How are you leading BB&K through the COVID-19 pandemic?

Eric Garner: Because there is no playbook for managing in a global pandemic, I have let the firm’s culture be my guide. Great lawyering and client service are what we want to provide, so supporting that — technologically and in every other way — is number one.

However, connection is very important here, so that means keeping in touch in every way possible but physically. Normally, leaders have to have boundaries; however, in a time like this my focus is on constantly communicating and being very available to every single person at BB&K that wants to connect.

Rose Ors: What are your key growth initiatives?

Eric Garner: Growth for growth’s sake has never been our approach. Our growth has been fueled by changing client needs and our desire to be a one-stop shop for our clients.

Our geographic footprint and our areas of practice reflect our approach. We have hired lawyers with experience in areas such as healthcare or pension and employee benefits because our clients’ needs increased in those areas. In 2011, we acquired Miller & Van Eaton, a nationally recognized Washington, D.C.-based telecommunications firm. Today, our D.C. office is helping our public agency clients deal with the novel regulatory issues arising from the 5G rollout.

Rose Ors: Clients are increasingly asking law firms to provide top-notch, cost-effective, and efficient legal services. How is BB&K responding to this challenge?

Eric Garner: I will answer with a specific example. Our public agency clients must comply with countless requests made under the California Public Records Act. We created our Advanced Records Center (ARC) to provide these clients a comprehensive, flexible, and cost-effective way to comply. ARC employs certified e-Discovery specialists, paralegals and lawyers to identify, collect, and review records responsive to a request. The team uses sophisticated software that quickly drills down on the target records, creating huge cost and time savings.

The significant investment we have made in the ARC has lowered costs for our clients and has enabled us to gain share in this market segment.

A challenge we face, along with most midsize firms, is that our clients will not pay the high-end rates we would have to charge to match the compensation offered by large law firms.

Rose Ors: What are the unique challenges of a firm your size? What are the opportunities?

Eric Garner: A challenge we face, along with most midsize firms, is that our clients will not pay the high-end rates we would have to charge to match the compensation offered by large law firms. We cannot win a bidding war for talent. Fortunately, we can attract the talent we need with our culture, our work, and our clients.

Another challenge for us is competing with much larger firms for specialty work in practice areas such as environmental and natural resources where the stakes are very high. Some clients will always prefer to go with the largest firms because if something goes wrong, the client can say they hired the firm that seemed to be the safer bet.

On the opportunity side of the equation, being smaller allows us to be more nimble and to more quickly adapt to the increasingly fast pace of the legal market. Yet, being much larger than our competitors in the public agency space gives us a competitive advantage such as the one we achieved with the ARC rollout.

Rose Ors: How would your public agency clients describe BB&K’s value proposition?

Eric Garner: We do a lot of client interviews and surveys. Over and over again, our clients tell us they greatly value how we really know their business and their space, and how much they feel like our attorneys are their partner. They are very appreciative and frankly often happily overwhelmed that we have the expertise that we do.

Rose Ors: What is your leadership philosophy?

Eric Garner: My philosophy is to hire really talented people, give them the proper support and infrastructure, and then get out of their way.

I lead by never compromising on our firm’s core values. Everyone has to be accountable to do the right thing by our clients and by each other.

This interview has been edited and condensed by Rose Ors.