fivehundred magazine > Interview with: Roger Meltzer > Law firms must drive social change or lose the talent war

Law firms must drive social change or lose the talent war

DLA Piper’s global co-chair talks about the challenges of
expansion, a commitment to innovation, and building an
organisation that reflects society.

DLA Piper is well known for the size and scope of its network. What are the specific challenges of leading a firm of this size and scope?

Excepting the nightmarish logistics associated with time zones and travel, which do unquestionably make leadership positions in global firms more cumbersome, I also generally believe the challenges are fundamentally different, both in size and scope in regional markets and major money centres, which require an analytical depth to create a coherent and executable cross-cultural strategy.

The key to leading a legal enterprise of this type is recognising that one is a steward to an entire community, not just the lawyers, and that all constituencies have to be included, supported, and protected. For us, that means the needs and legacies associated with a global community spread across more than 40 countries.

In order to lead a firm like this successfully, it is incumbent upon our most senior leaders to listen carefully while remaining calm, and articulate our vision and the related strategic market tactics necessary to achieve those goals. Pivoting and adaptation are daily requirements for colleagues and clients; personal needs must be addressed, individual talent nurtured and institutional glue discovered, which emphasises and promotes the notion that we are on a journey together, not as silos but as one.

To build something that can be sustained and continues to have a durable impact, leadership needs to meet people wherever they are and bring them forward together to reap the benefits of the global platform.

The firm’s expansion over the years has involved various acquisitions and combinations. What issues/challenges do these combinations throw up? And how are those managed?

There are two seminal acquisitive notions that the firm adheres to: never expand simply for the sake of expansion and do not stretch to do a bad deal. Combinations should be both opportunistic and strategic (while ring fencing risk), with an eye toward compatibility and the improvement of brand equity – both from a business point of view and through the prism of social change, all the while enhancing firm culture.

We also recognise the importance of indigenous leadership because we realise, borne of experience, that we cannot simply parachute people into various regions and expect success to follow. This approach has been central to our identity and our ability to build and elevate our platform. Integrating new firms and large groups takes work and, in almost every way, the hardest work needs to be undertaken and accomplished after they are part of the firm, creating the greatest possibility that our newest and long-term productive people will be personally fulfilled, their aspirations met and their success scalable and repeatable.

Since becoming global co-chairman and Americas co-chairman, what percentage of your time is spent practising law versus firm management?

The majority of my time is spent on firm management issues, but I continue to maintain client relationships and often provide sophisticated counsel in existential situations, in addition to providing
guidance to our lawyers in some of our most significant client matters.

What do you think are the top three things most clients want and why?

It seems elementary, but clients want a core person who is identified and respected so that when there is an issue, a unique challenge, or a need for high-level, strategic advice they have a ‘throat to choke’.

Second, they also want their most important firms to be more than simply lawyers; they want us to be business advisors and risk managers who help anticipate and prepare them for what’s lurking around the corner in their industry or sector. With that kind of advice required, there is a natural adaptation of our service offerings.

Third, clients want to know that we are with them shoulder-to-shoulder in their business and their communities – their risk is our risk and their success is ours, which serves as a catalyst for the building of brand equity.

Is technology changing the way you interact with and service your clients?

Absolutely, but that is certainly nothing new nor unique to DLA Piper – it has been on the march for quite some time. Now more than ever, however, clients are asking for new, better, and more sophisticated thinking in the ways we provide services, and we are, obviously, committed to its delivery.

This translates into a sustained commitment through capital resource allocation to practice innovation and firm infrastructure development that not only allows us to work more effectively on our clients’ behalf, but allows our lawyers more freedom and creativity.

In addition, advances in our own technology, infrastructure, and innovation, as well as our willingness to delegate these roles and authority to true technology and business professionals, plays a significant part in our success in helping our clients assess their future industry risk and extending our market reach and share of their legal spend.

What have you found is the best way to retain talented partners and associates?

Maintaining a compelling business and professional proposition that can capture the hearts and minds of our people (as op-ed columnist David Brooks has famously written) is the difference between a thick and thin institution, all the while creating a sustainable and inclusive culture of which they are not just a part, but are helping to drive. This includes helping all of our productive parts find and develop the career path that is most suited to their talents and needs, and complements the needs of the firm, clients, and the social fabric of the profession and society.

Diversity is increasingly important to clients. How do law firms increase diversity, especially in leadership positions?

By acknowledging our mistakes and failures, focusing on them and not wavering from our commitment to permanent change. Diversity, inclusion, and belonging are both moral and business imperatives for DLA Piper. It is an area of intense focus for me and the rest of our leadership.

For too long, law firms looked at each other and saw that improvements were roughly on par, so they were content to maintain the status quo. It was about the competition, not what is right. I am not a believer in that. If we are not driving social change – meaning diversity, inclusion and belonging at all levels – we are losing the battle for talent. And once that battle is lost, a firm cannot recreate the value proposition that should be a critical component of an enduring legacy.

After all, what are we trying to accomplish? Are we not trying to build a community that reflects the best parts of society? To the extent we can just achieve that and maintain it as part of the moral and cultural fibre of the firm, then we are building something that will be attractive to the talent we hope will find a new and different firm, like DLA Piper, compelling. At DLA Piper, we are building greater freedom to be authentic and not hide. We are doing all of this aggressively.

For those just starting out in law, do you have any advice?

First, learn the fundamentals. Youth affords one the opportunity to build that professional foundation. One will never have that opportunity again, so it is important to do so from the outset. It is also critical, as I mentioned above, that one be their authentic self – anything else is unsustainable and, ultimately, untenable. Learn to accept and move on from those things you cannot control and/or may think are unfair. And, finally, be aware of the market and how it is changing and evolving so that you can do the same with your personal and professional development.

Looking back over your time as global and Americas co-chairman, what’s surprised you most about running a law firm?

No day is surprise free and the requirement to summon your pastoral capacities makes one, as a leader, more authentic, approachable, and filled with the kindness that the firm often needs in the trench wars we are consistently fighting. I am constantly struck by the level of creativity, innovation, and collaboration we are able to achieve on a global scale for the common good – in service to our clients as well as the needs of society while confronting the day-to-day and long-term challenges of world business and the profession.