We continue our 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 talks to Melissa Jones, managing partner at Stoel Rives, a Portland, Ore.-based law firm with 10 office locations in seven U.S. states and Washington, D.C.
Rose Ors: You became managing partner in January of this year. What did you plan to do in your first 90 days?
Melissa Jones: My plan was to continue the listening tour I began in September of last year. I travelled to all of our offices and met with partners, associates, and staff to learn what they love about the firm and what they wanted to see going forward. I had hoped to be able to meet with all of my partners one-on-one as part of this effort, but unfortunately, my travel stopped mid-March because of the COVID-19 lockdown.
Rose Ors: How are you connecting with the firm now?
Melissa Jones: I am on phone and video conference calls every day. But my outreach has been focused more on how we are navigating the new work realities presented by the lockdown. To this end, I write weekly update emails to the entire firm. My partners and I speak far more frequently. We recently held a virtual firm-wide meeting.
I have taken the approach that over-communicating is better than under communicating. I do not want people to feel isolated or uninformed. We all need to feel connected and engaged.
Rose Ors: Do you have a COVID-19 response team helping you navigate the crisis?
Melissa Jones: We have a couple of different response teams. One of the teams designed how we would pivot from working in the office to working remotely. The same team has developed our “return to office” plan. Another team is focused on client service. This team is working to ensure our clients receive all the support they need.
Rose Ors: How is the firm helping clients?
Melissa Jones: We have a dedicated Coronavirus Resource Hub where clients can access some rich and timely content. We offer frequent COVID-19 specific webinars which have had record client turnout and participation. We send client email alerts. All these actions are designed to share what we know with our clients quickly. Most importantly, our attorneys work to connect directly with clients on a regular basis, even if just as a quick check-in to see how things are going.
As you can imagine, tax, labor and employment, and some pockets of corporate have been the busiest groups. These are the areas where things are changing quickly, and we are working to make sure we can help our clients adapt and respond quickly.
Rose Ors: How has the firm’s culture helped to getting important things done quickly?
Melissa Jones: One of the reasons I joined the firm and love working here is its collegial and collaborative culture. I credit our industry group focus — a focus we’ve had long before it became popular amongst law firms — for helping foster our team oriented approach. Our team mentality is what made it easy for people in different practices and offices to work on so quickly launching our dedicated client COVID-19 Resource Hub, client webinars and alerts.
Rose Ors: So, let me ask a personal question. How are you doing?
Melissa Jones: Under the circumstances, I am doing well. My husband and I are working from home as are our older school-age children. Each of us is ensconced in a different part of the house getting our work done. And we are managing pretty well and grateful that we can work from home.
I’ve been pleasantly surprised that my kids have been resilient and have been able to make the best of things. Of course, like everyone else, I dislike the uncertainty about the future and not knowing precisely how and when the pandemic will end. But the best we can do is set a course with contingency plans.
Rose Ors: I know it is early still, but what are some of the positive outcomes arising from this crisis?
Melissa Jones: One very positive thing is how extremely well our technology is working. If you had asked me before the lockdown if our technology could support us all working remotely — the entire law firm — I would not have been confident it would. But it is working very well.
Another terrific outcome of the lockdown is how some of our partners who were not very tech savvy have embraced technology. I have had partners say to me with surprise, “I can do everything electronically without paper files.” The same is true for electronic billing. We have long had an electronic billing system that most of our lawyers used, but some partners preferred doing their timesheets manually. Now that we all must submit our proformas electronically many of those who were reluctant to change have been willing to adapt.
Rose Ors: What other business practices are you rethinking?
Melissa Jones: Business travel is one. Many of us travel a lot for work and I think once things settle, we will be evaluating how much travel is really necessary going forward. Meeting in person is always good, but it is not always essential. I also think we will be reevaluating how much office space we actually need as our leases expire, and will be likely to reduce our space to some extent.
Rose Ors: I’d like to segue to another important topic—diversity and inclusion. In September 2019, the firm announced its participation in Diversity Lab’s “Move the Needle” initiative. Why did the firm decide to participate?
Melissa Jones: The legal industry has long struggled to increase the diversity of talent in the profession. The “Move the Needle” program is a great and unique opportunity that enabled us to team up with Diversity Lab, law firms and law departments to experiment with different approaches and programs.
The goal is to develop D&I programs that move the needle and share them with the broader legal community so we can have an impact that goes beyond just our law firm.
Specifically, our firm has made progress in various areas, but like all firms, we have more work to do. We decided to focus on retention and our Move the Needle goal is to increase the retention rate of our diverse lawyers to equal the retention rate of our non-diverse attorneys by 2025. We believe that if we can achieve that goal, it will ultimately lead to increased diversity in the partnership and make the firm stronger.
Rose Ors: How would you describe your leadership philosophy?
Melissa Jones: I think it is important for a leader to communicate in a clear and consistent manner. I try to be very transparent and tend to be pretty direct in my communication. I also think it is important for a leader to be open to new ideas and approaches. I value the richness of diverse viewpoints and want to draw on the knowledge of my partners and colleagues.
Finally, I think a good leader recognizes the importance of everyone’s role and acknowledges the contributions they make.
This interview has been edited and condensed by Rose Ors.