UPFRONT & PERSONAL: An Interview with Toby Brown, Chief Practice Management Officer at Perkins Coie

Topics: Client Relations, Law Firms, Leadership, Legal Innovation, Legal Operations, Practice Engineering, Process Management, Q&A Interviews, Upfront & Personal


Today we continue our monthly feature, “Upfront & Personal”, on the Legal Executive Institute blog. The column, created by Rose Ors, brings “the person behind the title” to the forefront in interviews with some of the most influential members of the legal community.

Toby Brown is Chief Practice Management Officer at Perkins Coie LLP, leading the firm’s revenue management and efficiency programs, legal project management, pricing, process improvement, practice innovation, alternative staffing and new partner integration. Mr. Brown spoke recently with Ms. Ors, the CEO and Founder of ClientSmart, about being fearless, how he got into legal pricing, and what he’d say to a new chief practice management officer.

Rose Ors: How would your friends describe you?

Toby Brown: My childhood friends would tell you that I have the same sense of wonderment and excitement about the world that I did when I was 12 years old. And they’re right. I’ve always viewed life as an adventure — an adventure made memorable because I’ve shared it with others.  My friends would also tell you I’m pretty fearless. I’m always the one saying, “Let’s go try something new.” As a kid, the something new was things like learning how to water and snow ski. As an adult, the something new is things like racing cars. I guess I love the adrenaline rush.

I’ve apologized to my mother countless times for my propensity to do scary things, and especially for the time in my early teens when I jumped off a 60-foot cliff into water. I simply had to do it… but my poor mother.

Rose Ors: What career advice would you give your 20-year-old self?

Toby Brown: I would tell myself that when a door cracks open, shove your foot through it because it may lead you to something exciting. I took my advice early in my law firm career, and it’s worked for me — that’s how I got into legal pricing.

Upfront & Personal

Toby Brown, Chief Practice Management Officer at Perkins Coie LLP

Rose Ors: So, how did you get into legal pricing?

Toby Brown: I was leading the global Knowledge Management program for Fulbright & Jaworski (now Norton Rose Fulbright) at the beginning of the 2008 recession. I did a presentation to the leadership team to make the business case that knowledge management was going to be an important factor in the firm’s ability to enter into alternative fee arrangements (AFAs). On one of the slides, I had a quote from the then-general counsel of ConocoPhillips: “If you’re thinking about asking for a rate increase, don’t bother. If we’ve granted you rate increases, we’ve changed our mind.” The slide prompted two partners at the meeting to ask me what I knew about AFAs. I told them how I had read the literature on AFA’s but had never done one. Our conversation was on a Tuesday afternoon, and that Friday morning, I was in a meeting with the two partners and the general counsel of an oilfield services pipeline company negotiating a holdback/success fee arrangement. The deal turned out very well for all sides.

Rose Ors: What happened next?

Toby Brown: Because that door cracked opened and I shoved my foot through it, for six weeks after my presentation I was involved in pricing deals full time. I loved doing it, and I knew it was the future. I then asked and was given the opportunity to create Fulbright’s first alternative fee program. I turned serendipity into a new career path.

Rose Ors: How would you counsel a colleague who wants to heed your foot-in-the-door advice but who doesn’t know what to do once he’s swung the door wide open?

Toby Brown: Now that I mentor others I give them that advice often. They listen and then ask me the same question you’re asking. I, too, have asked myself that question — still do. My best advice is to learn from your peers by asking questions. Today you can find excellent sources of information and support.

When I started in pricing there were no courses to take and only a handful of people to talk to. It’s why I started the Legal Marketing Association’s P3 Conference to bring together those undertaking roles in law firm pricing, project management, and process improvement. In April we’ll be hosting our sixth conference. Someone new to the field can learn so much by starting off with my three favorite words, “Help me understand…?” People want to share their knowledge. You just need to be gracious in asking for help.

Rose Ors: Is the phrase, “Help me understand” something you use today in conversations with your clients — your internal clients and your law firm clients?

Toby Brown: Absolutely. I always want to know what a client’s pain point is. It’s where I start and where I find I can reach a true understanding of what they need from me. From this starting point, I get more detailed by again asking questions that are open-ended and focused on what matters to the person I’m speaking to. So, for example, I might ask, “At the end of this fiscal year, what is going to make you look good to your boss regarding fees?”

Rose Ors: What inspires you?

Toby Brown: I go through phases. What inspires me now is devouring podcasts on a broad range of topics, including neuroscience, quantum computing, and artificial intelligence. Podcasts like “After On” and “Waking Up” — two current favorites — are full of new ideas… some far-fetched, but all intriguing. I’m an explorer, and these podcasts let me travel far and wide.

Rose Ors: What person would you be thrilled to have over for dinner?

Toby Brown: I would invite Elon Musk. To spend an evening with the mind behind companies such as PayPal, SpaceX, and Telsa, to name the most well-known, would be thrilling. Frankly, I’m such a car guy; I’d be just as happy to spend an evening with him if he’d only started Telsa.  But, on a serious note, what intrigues me about him is that he thinks about the future of humanity and how he can make it better by providing sustainable energy, clean transportation, and interplanetary space travel. The last one is fantastic and right up my alley!

Rose Ors: You should invite me to that dinner with Musk. But for now, here’s my final question. What advice would you give a newly appointed Chief Practice Management Officer?

Toby Brown: A central focus of the role is revenue management. Through that lens, it’s critical to ask, “What am I doing and what is my team doing to help drive the firm’s profitability?” My advice to someone in the role is to ask that question often — to ask it of herself, her team, and her firm’s leadership.

The interview has been edited and condensed by Rose Ors.