The 20th Annual Law Firm Leaders Forum: A Fitting Anniversary Edition

Topics: Access to Justice, Client Relations, Corporate Legal, Law Firm Leaders Forum, Law Firms, Legal Innovation, Thomson Reuters

NEW YORK ­— The 20th annual meeting of our Law Firm Leaders Forum was truly outstanding. Conducted with record attendance in New York last Thursday and Friday, its range of topics, depth of analysis, and diversity and effectiveness of faculty exceeded the very high standard the Forum has established over the years.

Here are some highlights:

Annual Report on the Profession and Business of Law

We opened with our annual update panel, discussing significant developments from the last 12 months. This year the report consisted of observations from five different perspectives.

I opened with an exposition of data that showed how corporate clients are increasingly accessing their legal service needs from sources other than the AmLaw 200 firms, which, I suggested, could explain the perception of most pundits that “demand” for legal service is down or flat, when it is actually increasing. I also examined the five “dimensions of difference” that are emerging in successful firms. These are:

  • Service model
  • Resource model
  • Financial model
  • Pricing model
  • Investment model

Brad Hildebrandt, chairman of Hildebrandt Consulting, discussed the accelerating consolidation of law firms and the other tactics firms are pursuing to capture revenue in light of the challenges they face. William Hubbard, drawing on his just-completed year as American Bar Association (ABA) President, discussed the justice gap in the United States, the progress of legal technology, opportunities for small- and medium-sized firms, and the prospects for regulatory reform. Aric Press, former Editor-in-Chief of The American Lawyer and current partner at Bernero & Press, discussed his perceptions of corporate client outlook on legal service, and the increased importance of client relationships in the current environment of rapid change. Jami Wintz McKeon, Firm Chair of Morgan Lewis & Bockius, surveyed how large law firms have responded to the financial crisis and the imperative for change, articulating an optimistic outlook for large firms that adapt their systems to the new reality. (For further coverage of this panel, see here.)

Restoring Greater Professionalism to the Practice of Law

In our second session, Ben Heineman, former general counsel for General Electric and current Senior Fellow at Harvard Law, sounded a call for a renewed and enhanced focus on lawyers’ duties as professionals, drawing on the findings and recommendations of the seminal essay that he, WilmerHale’s Bill Lee, and Harvard Law’s David Wilkins published earlier this year. ABA’s Hubbard reinforced Heineman’s remarks with a passionate expression of the urgent need for lawyers to do more to support the American system of justice, making specific suggestions for increased participation. I closed the session by encouraging law firm leaders to give these issues the priority they deserve. (You can read more about this panel here.)

Annual Financial Report

Thomson Reuters’ Mike Abbott and Citi Private Bank Law Firm Group’s Gretta Rusanow presented our annual comprehensive report on the financial performance of law firms, drawing on Peer Monitor and Citibank data. Among the findings this year is a growing disparity among firms on the various metrics of financial performance.

Keynote Address

This year’s keynote was delivered by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author, Bob Woodward, who discussed his observations on leadership based on more than four decades of close examinations of US Presidents. He also shared his observations of the current political issues, including the 2016 presidential race, and previewed his new book, The President’s Last Man, which will be released this week.

Collaboration

Harvard Law Professor Heidi Gardner led two sessions to conclude the first day of the Forum, in a highly interactive and engaging manner. (More coverage here.)

In the first, Prof. Gardner explored the implications of her ground breaking research on collaboration for improving law firm leadership and management. In the second, she applied those notions in a discussion with leaders who have undertaken significant innovations, in quite varied settings. The panelists included: Microsoft Deputy General Counsel Lucy Bassli and Davis Wright partner Jay Hull, who have fundamentally changed the way important elements of service are delivered to Microsoft; Chapman and Cutler Chair Tim Mohan who detailed the way his firm has modified it service and business models; and White & Case Chair Hugh Verrier who shared how his firm drives innovation in the context of a truly global firm. The discussion was concrete, specific, and illuminating.

Achieving Meaningful Client Relationships

We opened the second day of the Forum with a candid and granular discussion of the keys to building and maintaining meaningful relationships with corporate clients. The panel included several chief legal officers or general counsels, including Jennifer Daniels of Colgate-Palmolive; David Cambria of Archer Daniels Midland; Chaim Levin, Tradition Group; and David Gaulin, PricewaterhouseCoopers. I moderated the panel.

We began by exploring the financial pressures each panel member faced in their companies and the ways each worked to access legal service as cost effectively as possible. We then explored the ways in which genuine relationships were important and how law firms can achieve such relationships. The panelists were very forthcoming about specific law firm practices that either promote or undermine client relationships. It was a remarkably instructive panel on this ever more important subject.

Enemies at the Gate: The Threat to Law Firm Data Security

We closed the Forum with a panel that offered a comprehensive examination of the issues law firms must confront in protecting their clients’ and their own data from invasion. The panelists — consisting of Mark Connelly, Chief Information Officer for Thomson Reuters; Rob Knake, Senior Fellow for Cyber Policy on the Council on Foreign Relations; Josh Goldfarb, Vice President and Chief Technology Officer for the Americas at FireEye — were not only experts, but they presented the technical subjects in plain English with real world examples, making the complicated issues much more approachable than they often are in such discussions.

All in all it was an outstanding Forum, a truly fitting 20th Anniversary Edition.