We continue our bi-monthly column, On Leadership, created by Rose Ors for Thomson Reuters. Each installment will feature conversations with law firm CEOs or 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 talks to Jonathan Skeeters, Managing Partner at Bradley, a 150-year-old law firm with 500 lawyers among 10 offices in six states, mostly in the South, and the District of Columbia.
Rose Ors: You became managing partner in September 2018. How did you spend your first 90 days?
Jon Skeeters: I visited all of our offices to have as many face-to-face meetings as I could with our partners on what I called my barnstorming tour. My goal was to better understand their practice and the support they needed. The meetings were also designed to get my partners thinking and talking about the direction of the firm. Those conversations were opportunities to start sketching out our next strategic plan, which we developed in the spring of 2019.
My other priority during that initial period was to open our Dallas office, which was the last major step in our then-existing strategic plan. We successfully opened Dallas on January 1, 2019, and we have experienced steady growth in Dallas over the past year.
Rose Ors: Why do you think it was important to have those conversations in person?
Jon Skeeters: Leading a law firm requires developing consensus. You can create a consensus by building relationships with your partners and gaining their trust and confidence in you. I think the best way to do that is face-to-face. I am fortunate I didn’t begin my tenure during this pandemic.
Rose Ors: How has the firm managed during the pandemic?
Jon Skeeters: Initially, like most firms, we went into crisis management mode. We went back to emphasizing the fundamentals, simple things like billing your time, getting the invoice out to the client and then collecting it. We immediately developed a financial plan that identified the key performance indicators we were going to monitor. If these indicators went the wrong way, we had alternative steps we would take.
We have been especially intentional with our client relations efforts to ensure that clients’ needs were being met. We have also emphasized communication and transparency across the firm. In addition to regular updates to partners on financial matters, I send a weekly email to everyone in the firm highlighting our wins, celebrating staff members who went above and beyond, and even announcing the birth of babies. I think that has helped keep us connected to the firm and to each other.
We are now in phase two of our return to the office plan, which is a voluntary return. While we certainly are happy to be returning to our offices, we have been pleased with our remote work operations. Our lawyers and staff have done a great job adapting. Our summer associates program was entirely virtual this year, and it was well received by the 90 students participating and the lawyers who worked with them.
Rose Ors: Many law firms eliminated their summer programs as a cost cutting measure. Why did Bradley decide to hold the program?
Jon Skeeters: One of the keys to our success has been consistently building a pipeline of talent. The summer program is an investment in the future of the firm. Training young lawyers and helping them reach their personal and professional goals is really important to us. It is part of our culture. It is a commitment to pay it forward — a commitment we take seriously.
Rose Ors: How else has the firm’s culture helped carry you through this crisis?
Jon Skeeters: We are celebrating our 150-year anniversary as a law firm this year, so we have a very deep culture to draw upon. You do not last for 150 years without a mindset that lets you adapt and evolve, and a culture that encourages innovation.
We had a firm-wide celebration — including spouses and significant others — earlier this year before the pandemic. It was a great celebration, and, in many ways, being able to gather as a group, reflect on our success, and reinforce our core values prepared us for this very trying period of disconnectedness. We had hoped to have additional anniversary celebrations throughout the year with clients to thank them for helping us reach this milestone but those had to be cancelled or delayed.
Another part of our culture that we also have benefited from is managing our business by practice groups rather than by individual offices, which creates a one-firm mentality. The common bonds of working in teams and collaborating in those practice groups makes it easier to overcome the challenges we have faced this year.
Rose Ors: How are you helping your clients navigate through this turbulence?
Jon Skeeters: At the beginning of the crisis, there was a frenzy of activity, but we saw there were some common themes developing from our clients. We wanted to coordinate the responses from our 14 practice groups to ensure they were consistent, so we created our Coronavirus Resource Center, which allowed us to distribute helpful content and turn our usual in-person events to virtual events.
We identified who in the firm would be our go-to experts on a particular issue, often teaming people from different practice groups. These subject-matter experts led the webinars and conference calls we opened to all clients. Everyone in the firm has invested non-billable hours in these efforts because we know our clients need to hear from us.
Rose Ors: How would you describe your leadership style and how did you develop it?
Jon Skeeters: I played a lot of team sports growing up. I think being on a team, working towards a common goal, and learning to embrace competition had an impact on my approach to my legal career and my leadership style.
I would describe my leadership style as always having a plan and then executing that plan. I liken it to looking down the field, figuring out where the ball should go, and then trying to get it there. I was a pretty good soccer player in college, but I was much more of an assist person than a scorer. My job was to keep the team organized and get the ball to the right person at the right time.
That is also how I approach leading the firm. I want to make others look good and put the team in the best position for success. Other aspects of leadership that are important to me are making sure people are clear on expectations, keeping them fully informed, and leading by example.
I don’t ask people to do things that I’m not willing to do.