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Boies Says Firing Lawyers Is the Hardest Part of Running a Firm

Dec. 10, 2020, 10:41 AM

Welcome back to the Big Law Business column on the changing legal marketplace written by me, Roy Strom. This week, we look at the strategic role that disappointing people plays in managing a law firm. Sign up to receive this column in your inbox on Thursday mornings.

I interviewed David Boies and his firm’s soon-to-be deputy chair Natasha Harrison last week following news that Boies Schiller Flexner co-managing partner Nick Gravante would be leaving the firm for Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft. My story focused on how Boies Schiller is handling generational transition at the firm, which has come under scrutiny since nearly 60 partners have departed this year.

I also asked Boies why it was important to him at age 79 that his law firm continue past his days of practicing law. The famed litigator said the two main reasons were the people the firm supports and its commitment to bettering the justice system, including through pro bono work.

“I want to do everything I can to try and be sure this firm is there for them as it has been for me, in terms of supporting them professionally and financially,” he said of the roughly 200 lawyers current at Boies Schiller.

Boies said he didn’t find it personally painful to see lawyers exit the firm for new career opportunities—like Gravante, whom he called a friend.

But he acknowledged that other aspects of people management have not come easy.

“The most difficult thing that I have to do in the practice of law in most cases, even more difficult than telling a client we’ve not succeeded for them, is to tell a lawyer who has worked for me and we’ve hired and supported that they ought to look elsewhere,” Boies said. “I’m not good at those kinds of personnel decisions. And I think Natasha and her new leadership will say that the fact that I am not good at those kinds of decisions probably is what has required them to do as much restructuring as they are doing.”

There are plenty of reasons why lawyers have left Boies Schiller this year. Not all are due to the benevolence of the boss.

But Boies is not the only law firm leader who has struggled with the job of managing people.

Big Law still does very little to develop leadership or management skills. Although lawyers still insist that lawyers—not business professionals—should lead law firms, they put little money and effort into providing those leaders the training and tools they need.

“Law firms have significantly underinvested in this relative to every other profession we look at,” said Scott Westfahl, the director of Harvard Law School Executive Education who teaches courses on leadership to managing partners and general counsel.

The transition away from a firm’s founding generation is one of the most crucial moments in the lifespan of a law firm. One important step in that transition is developing formal processes around things like compensation, the organization’s core values, or personnel decisions, Westfahl said. The larger and more complex the firm, the more crucial the preparation.

For a first-generation firm, Boies Schiller has been a spectacular success. The American Lawyer ranks the firm No. 25 by revenue per lawyer, which is often described as the best indicator of a law firm’s financial health. Founded in 1997, Boies Schiller sits on that list between Proskauer Rose and Weil Gotshal, firms that trace their origins to 1875 and 1931, respectively.

Unlike those firms, Boies Schiller hasn’t ever had to transition to new leaders. For Boies, that means he doesn’t have the luxury of being able to rely on what the firm has done in the past. In law firms, precedent often provides authority to leadership decisions.

“Your first year of education in law school teaches you to be driven by precedent. It’s like an intellectual boot camp,” said Ralph Baxter, former chairman and CEO of Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe. “In the end, the skills required to be a successful business are human resources, management, sales, and career development. And law firms are notoriously terrible at developing that.”

Consider how Jones Day chooses its managing partner’s successor. It lets the last one pick. However a system like that came to be, it’s easy to imagine the controversy, the disappointment, it likely caused the first time it was proposed. And one simple reason the approach is still accepted today is because it has been accepted in the past. People expect it.

Conversations about performance, or why one leader was chosen over the other, can feel haphazard or based on favoritism if there are not guiding principles for transition in place, Westfahl said. It puts leadership in a difficult position.

He described the task of transitioning a law firm to its next generation as an “adaptive challenge,” where there is no technical, correct answer. It is a task that requires understanding the issues of all the stakeholders involved and making choices that effectively manage the inevitable disappointments they create.

“Disappointing people at a pace they can handle is the art of leadership,” Westfahl said.

Worth Your Time

On Big Law and Big Tech: Bloomberg Law this week ran a special report on the Big Law firms that win the most business from technology firms. It identified Big Tech’s favorite litigators, go-to patent firms, and top deal firms. And it detailed Kirkland’s role in copyright and trademark suits for tech clients.

On Podcasts: Bloomberg Law also launched a podcast, Black Lawyers Speak, that shares notable attorneys’ personal experiences inside elite law firms, companies, and law schools. The five-part series also chronicles their ongoing struggle for equality in the profession.

On Bar Exams: Pass rates rose this year for the D.C. bar exam, which was administered online for the first time due to coronavirus risk, Sam Skolnik reports.

That’s it for this week! Thanks for reading and please send me your thoughts, critiques, and tips.

To contact the reporter on this story: Roy Strom in Chicago at rstrom@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Rebekah Mintzer at rmintzer@bloomberglaw.com; Chris Opfer at copfer@bloomberglaw.com

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