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Leading Questions: Reed Smith’s Sandy Thomas

Jan. 22, 2021, 10:32 AM

Lawyers are great at asking questions, but how are they at answering them? Bloomberg Law is talking with lawyers and other legal industry players at the top of their fields to find out what makes them tick, what challenges they face, and how they do what they do.

Alexander “Sandy” Thomas, global managing partner at Reed Smith, says clients can prepare for a tougher enforcement under President Joe Biden by keeping an eye on some now-vacant posts.

“A lot has to do with the people the new administration puts in place—who the assistant attorney general for antitrust will be, and what he or she will bring to the equation,” he says.

Thomas, a commercial litigator based in Washington, joined the firm in 1997 when it was Hazel & Thomas and has gone on to a 22-year tenure there. It became Reed Smith in 1999. He served as global chair of litigation in 2012 and 2013 and was named the global managing chair in 2013.

Thomas says he expects most law firms will be cautious with their 2021 budgets. “But it wouldn’t surprise me if a lot of firms are going to keep investing in the talent and sectors that have been working for them so far.”

Bloomberg Law spoke to Thomas about the importance of ad hoc conversations among colleagues, his experience holding uncomfortable conversations around race with the firm’s 3,000 lawyers and staffers, and how law firm leadership is a contact sport.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Bloomberg Law: What do you see coming from the Biden administration on antitrust and enforcement?

Sandy Thomas: You’ll see a more intense enforcement environment. I came into the DOJ when there was a new administration, and you could feel the greater intensity around enforcement build. That’s just one of the consequences of change.

BL: What should clients be doing to prepare?

ST: A lot has to do with the people the new administration puts in place—who the assistant attorney general for antitrust will be, and what he or she will bring to the equation.

When I got into the Justice Department’s antitrust division, Anne Bingaman was the AAG, and she was awesome for a young lawyer in the department because she was a big believer in her people, and if there was a case to bring, she was going to bring it.

Clients could see from Anne’s experience what she would bring in terms of an enforcement mentality. So I think we’ll have to wait and see a little bit how those Justice Department and FTC spots get filled.

It would surprise me if there was any let up in the technology space and the enforcement taking place there.

BL: How do you plan for growth and adding talent in 2021?

ST: The industry will probably be fairly cautious. I would be surprised if a lot of firms are predicting and budgeting for a blowout year. But it wouldn’t surprise me if a lot of firms are going to keep investing in the talent and sectors that’s been working for them so far.

Sandy Thomas
Courtesy of Reed Smith

BT: How have you been grappling with the pandemic limiting travel and in-person communications?

AT: Well, a lot of screen time.

What is really missing—not just the personal, in-person interaction—but the incidental communications. For instance, that they had a sick child at home, or you didn’t know that they were two months away from retirement. Those kinds of incidental things that you pick up in your travels are really important.

I’ve found that you’ve had to build in more non-specific communications. The, “Hey, how are you doing?” “What’s up with that client we went and visited last year?” You have to budget the time for that.

I don’t think it’s going to work much permanent change on law firm leaders. We’re not going to stop having markets or offices. They will likely be smaller, we’ll have more flexibility in terms of where people work. But law leadership is a contact sport.

BL: Will lawyers be returning to the office in the next few months?

ST: With the process of the vaccines rollout, and with a new, more virulent strain, the prudent thing to do is to keep your office occupied on a limited population basis.

We found that remote working, while not ideal, works pretty well. So, it reduces any urgency to go back.

BL: Does the firm have specific diversity targets, is the firm meeting those targets and what does it still need to do to improve diversity?

ST: Over the course of the summer, we established a racial equity action plan. It was the outcome of a ton of internal communication among the 3,000 people who make up Reed Smith—not just the board, and not just the senior management team.

We had a couple of very open, very uncomfortable discussions about race, about race in the law firm, and the habit that Reed Smith and the industry may have gotten into that aren’t advancing our objectives.

Our racial equity plan has some very specific objectives for the four-year 2024 plan, such as a 50% increase in our number of Black lawyers, and a 30% increase of Black leadership within the law firm.

The last thing I would identify, in terms of things we are doing differently around diversity, is work allocation within the firm.

It’s been a long time since I was an associate in a law firm, but one of the things that’s gold within a law firm is career growth—how do you get in the path of good opportunity?

One of the ways to do this is to put more structure around work allocation, meaning making that a mostly centralized basis about who works on what projects when they come into the firm. You have to get a high-level of partner buy-in to do this, so we’ve been working that hard, and we’ve made some pretty good progress.

BL: What keeps you up at night?

ST: The thing that keeps me up most is business-related. If clients have a big-time problem or a big challenge, their stress level goes way up, and so does the stress level of their lawyers.

BL: I’m a new associate, fresh out of law school, what should I do to stand out and advance my career in the best way possible?

ST: The first thing is to never forget we’re in a service business.

Second, be an excellent writer. And be honest with yourself with whether you are or aren’t, and then work on it.

A third would be to read a valuable news source every day.

And the last thing is try to vary the people you’re learning from, and the people that are training you. Different lawyers do things differently, and you’ve got to figure out your own style. So I think trying to be intentional about some variety there is worthwhile.

To contact the reporter on this story: Mary Ellen Egan in New York at maryellenegan1@gmail.com
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Chris Opfer at copfer@bloomberglaw.com;
John Hughes at jhughes@bloombergindustry.com

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