Legal leaders for an era of change
Roula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favourite stories in this weekly newsletter.
The law firm leaders profiled here have all had an impact during a period of drastic change. Some are focused on maintaining their firms’ culture in response to rapid expansion; others have raised the profile of business services; some have had an effect in a short space of time. The revenue growth figures (2018-2021) correspond to the FT index, which gives a fuller picture of law firm success.
Profiles compiled by RSGI researchers and FT editors. “Winner” indicates an Innovative Lawyers 2022 award, the rest are in alphabetical order.
WINNER: Richard Trobman, chair and managing partner, Latham & Watkins
Having joined the firm’s Los Angeles office straight out of law school in 1991, Richard Trobman went on to lead the growth of Latham & Watkins’ UK presence for almost 20 years before becoming the firm’s managing partner in 2018. Trobman attributes part of Latham’s notable success over the past three years to his focus on investing for the future rather than purely on short-term measures of success, such as profit-per-equity-partner.
One area Trobman takes pride in is the firm’s continuing investment in improving the use of technology and data, which enabled the creation of a tactical opportunities team. This group of data analysts identifies commercial, financial and investment opportunities and risks for clients and the firm. The team’s work has helped the firm to develop deeper client relationships.
Three-year revenue growth: 62.1 per cent
Time in current role: four years
Jon Ballis, chair, Kirkland & Ellis
Chair since 2020, Jon Ballis joined Kirkland & Ellis as a partner in 2005. He now leads the largest law firm in the world by revenue. One of Ballis’s main concerns has been maintaining the firm’s culture while it expands rapidly. Kirkland added 300 lawyers to its headcount in 2021, the largest increase in raw numbers among the top 500 US law firms.
Pay and information-sharing are two distinguishing features at Kirkland. Its pay structure rewards lawyers for their contribution to the firm rather than focusing on individual gain, for instance. It also has several systems in place to help disseminate information quickly between its 3,000-plus partners. For example, instead of working directly with clients, some 25 partners focus on making the other partners better revenue generators, by passing on tips such as how to create and maintain the best possible document templates.
Three-year revenue growth: 60.8 per cent
Time in role: two years
Jamie Levitt, managing partner, New York office, Morrison Foerster
An experienced trial lawyer and managing partner of the firm’s New York office, Jamie Levitt is using her position at the firm to champion social justice causes.
In her pro-bono practice, she is leading a team working alongside the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in a civil rights suit on behalf of four 12-year-old black and Latina girls challenging Binghamton School District over allegedly racially biased strip-search policies. In September 2020, the racial discrimination charges were dropped in part due to a lack of granularity in the complainant’s data but the case continues.
Since becoming chair of Morrison Foerster Foundation, an affiliated charity foundation of the firm, in 2015, she has led several fundraisings — for the Covid-19 pandemic response, the Black Lives Matter movement and, most recently, for Ukraine, following the Russian invasion.
Three-year revenue growth: 18.4 per cent
Time in role: 18 months
Stacey Martinez, chief operating officer, Norton Rose Fulbright
With 32 years of experience as a trial lawyer, Stacey Martinez now oversees the firm’s teams for human resources, marketing and business development, finance, IT, and client value and innovation. Her credibility within the firm as a partner has helped to raise the profile of the business services functions at the firm.
As well as leading several operational improvements at Norton Rose Fulbright, Martinez has also worked with the client value and innovation teams to set up a US-based subsidiary, LX Studio, launched this year. The innovation subsidiary works with new legal-technology companies, such as workflow management specialist NMBL Technologies, to develop services that are used by the firm and its clients.
Three-year revenue growth: 6.6 per cent
Time in role: two years
Yvette Ostolaza, chair of the management committee, Sidley Austin
Yvette Ostolaza is the newest of the leaders featured here, having started her tenure in May. She previously held several senior positions at the firm, including global co-lead for the litigation group.
In 2021, as chair-elect, she helped develop Sidley Austin’s new associate development programme, Built to Lead. The programme gives fourth year associates and above the opportunity to improve their leadership and business skills through external executive education programmes, internal leadership academies, non-profit volunteering, and individual coaching.
It has also resulted in new associate promotions for those in their fourth and seventh years, aiding retention efforts.
Three-year revenue growth: 27.3 per cent
Time in role: seven months
Sandy Thomas, global managing partner, Reed Smith
Sandy Thomas describes leading a law firm in 2022 as like a contact sport, because of the need to tackle challenges from partners and clients head-on.
One issue that he is grappling with currently is how to train young lawyers who are working remotely for significant amounts of time. To address this, the firm has launched a scheme called Associate Advantage— a three-year development programme designed to mimic the in-person nature of apprenticeship training on which the profession has traditionally relied.
The aim is to help associates build stronger internal and external relationships and expose them to different types of work at the firm.
Three-year revenue growth: 22.2 per cent
Time in role: nine years
John Yoshimura, chief operating officer, McDermott Will & Emery
As a former partner and chief operating officer at management consultancy AT Kearney, John Yoshimura has brought best practice from outside the legal industry to modernise and professionalise the law firm’s management.
He sits on the firm’s executive committee as well as its management committee and is heavily involved in decisions around partner recruitment and performance management.
Yoshimura has appointed practice leaders who act as “mini-chief operating officers” for each practice area.
He advises them on how to expand their areas and presses them as required on productivity — but the decision-making ultimately lies with them.
Yoshimura is also responsible for recruiting talent from outside the legal industry to bring new perspectives into the firm’s business development, marketing, HR and IT departments.
Three-year revenue growth: 57.9 per cent
Time in role: seven years