Joanne Zimolzak took over as the managing partner of McKenna Long & Aldridge’s Washington office in November. She not only oversees about 114 attorneys (according to the most recent Legal Times 150 survey) but also serves as head of the firm’s insurance practice.
Zimolzak, who joined McKenna in 1994, focuses her business litigation practice on representing multinational insurance carriers. She also has experience on matters related to regulatory compliance, internal investigations and fraud reporting.
We sat down with Zimolzak in the firm’s K Street N.W. office to discuss what’s keeping McKenna attorneys busy these days, growth in northern Virginia and women and diversity in the legal industry.
What is keeping the Washington office busy these days?
Our government contracts practice, which is our longstanding, bread-and-butter of the firm, continues to perform very well. The bid protest portion of the practice is very sophisticated and active. Being here as long as I have, I used to recall that there was a protest season, but now it seems like the protest season never ends. Our other largest practice group is commercial litigation and that area has been very active as well.
What other practices round out the Washington office?
We are a standard, full-service, regulatory firm. We also have environmental capabilities. [The firm has a larger environmental practice focused on climate change, energy and sustatinability.] We have a very active government relations practice in D.C. It was new to the McKenna firm when we merged with the Long Aldridge firm and it has continued to grow since then.
Whereas the Long Aldridge firm had more of a regional-based government relations practice, the Washington practice is more at the federal level.
Part of that recent growth has been in the area of health care. We have very experienced practitioners who are very knowledgeable about the Affordable Care Act and its implementation and some of the challenges that companies are facing going forward as the legislation is being adopted in various states and requirements are being deciphered. That has been a positive development for us and our clients.
How did the recession affect McKenna?
I think what we’ve seen is that ­McKenna was in a fortunate position when the recession hit. We were not in the position where we had to do any massive layoffs or anything like that.
The firm had been very careful about managing its growth. We have grown, but we’ve been careful about it. That extends to a lot of different areas, including how we staff at the associate level. We used to have much larger classes than we do now. We had the right practice mix to take us through the economic downturn.
Now that things are starting to pick up, we are starting to see the benefit of that as well.
How do Congress and the government affect the Washington office?
One of our main business catchphrases is the intersection of government and business. That is how we like to position ourselves—as the law firm that clients can turn to and assist them in navigating those waters.
Government contracts are an obvious example of that. In the litigation area, we do a fair amount of white collar litigation. That is another place where you have the intersection with government and business. It is increasingly a global, interconnected world. We have people who help navigate those issues.
How do you juggle your responsibilities to the firm with those of your clients?
We are a service organization and our clients come first. The way that you juggle is to make sure that you’re meeting your clients’ needs first. From there really they are complimentary.
As the division lead, I am concerned about what the insurance practice is doing what it needs to do for clients and that it continues to grow in an appropriate way. That said, no one does this job alone. And I get a lot of support from not only my personal assistant but the office administrator, our staff and various chiefs who we have here.
That is not to say that I don’t get the occasional question about why there isn’t a certain type of pretzel in the vending machine. Somebody has to answer those questions.
From a practice perspective, what is keeping you busy these days?
There are always interesting things happening on the insurance front. In my view, having practiced in this area for some time now, insurance clients have been on the forefront of a lot of other litigation and clients are coming around to. It’s always been important to our insurance clients to have predictability to the extent that you can. The nature of litigation is that sometimes there are surprises.
Insurance clients have always put a premium on trying to manage that. I see other clients in litigation doing that more and more, trying to get their attorneys to put in a budget. I see a lot of alternative fee arrangements happening that try to establish more of a partnership between the law firm and the client. We are in this together. Everyone is invested in the outcome, which also includes keeping the cost down.
One of the things we’ve focused on in the insurance area is to implement legal project management principles. We have had training and have had a roll out of that in our insurance group. There are other divisions within litigation that have that training, but certainly insurance was one of the first groups at McKenna to focus on this. It’s a reflection of what is important to our clients.
Does the firm use alternative fees much?
We have an entire committee devoted to alternative fee arrangements. When an alternative fee arrangement comes in, it is submitted to the committee for vetting and approval. They also give presentations to the partnership about what arrangements are possible. We have done a variety of [alternative fee] arrangements. It can be a situation where you would have a 20 percent reduction in fees contingent upon a certain result and if you get the result you could get restoration of the fees and perhaps a success fee on top of that. Some of them are more of a straight discount situation.
Another scenario you might have a certain rate up to a certain dollar amount that would be tied to your budget. And then the rate could vary from there depending on how accurate your predictions are.
Would you say the firm does more hourly billing or alternative fee arrangements?
We’re not at a point where the majority of our matters are done on alternative fees arrangements, but the number is growing.
A lot of people have been predicting the demise of the billable hour for a long time. I think that we will all have to continue to watch that because it’s about delivering value for clients and if they are not seeing that as a way of enhancing the value that they’re getting then they will look for a different arrangement. That is why you see law firms more and more promoting the notion of alternative fee arrangements. This is client driven.
From a law firm perspective, billable hours are easy to administer. It’s a rate. It’s an hour. You do the math. It’s really client driven that alternative fee arrangements have become more prominent. We want to make sure that we are offering what arrangements are most beneficial to our clients that still allow us to run and manage a business.
What is the firm’s growth plan?
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that we recently added—effective in March—a northern Virginia office, which consists mainly of our aviation practice. It was the Dombroff and Jaques firm that now joined us. It was a great way to complement our existing government contracts and federal litigation practices with a number of experienced practitioners in the aviation area, thereby expanding our regulatory capabilities and litigation capabilities generally.
That is one example of the growth that we’ve been involved in. I think we will continue trying to expand our capabilities for our core client base in terms of the regulatory area and the intersection of government and business. Consistent with our views on smart growth, McKenna looks at growth opportunities in all the areas that complement our core practice groups and our core client base.
Does that include room to grow in Washington?
We do have room to grow here. We just renegotiated our lease in the late fall. [The firm's lease runs through June 2026.] We have options here to expand further. I could see some additional smart expansion, the kind McKenna is known for, taking place in this office.
In terms of any specific areas, we are looking to enhance our core practice areas and expand upon our core groups and our core client base. We practice with a lot of government contractors who work in the area and adding an aviation group with the level of experience made sense. Those are the kinds of opportunities that we’re looking for in Washington.
What are your thoughts on women and diversity in the legal community?
At the time, that I came in as managing partner, Kathy Jorrie took over as the managing partner for our Los Angeles office. Joann Jones is the managing partner for our Atlanta office. That means that we have women as the managing partners in our three largest offices.
Our national department chair for litigation is Tammy Azorksy, and has been for a long time. That is our largest department. We have a board of director structure and there are many women that serve on the board.
From a leadership standpoint, I think McKenna does a very good job. To me being around as long as I have been around in Washington, that is a pretty good job in terms of leadership opportunities.
In terms of diversity, there is a lot of work that we do in that area. There are a lot of initiatives that we follow. Having said that, I think our numbers are not where we would like them to be. I think that is a similar refrain of law firms of our size.
It’s an area that we continue to spend dedicated attention on and it continues to be important to us. Elevating people of different groups within the diversity circle to leadership positions is indicative of our commitment to diversity and will have the desired effect of communicating that this is a firm where there are opportunities for everyone.