Elizabeth O. 'Betty' Temple
Womble Carlyle’s Elizabeth Betty Temple ()

In January, corporate and securities lawyer Elizabeth “Betty” Temple took over as Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice’s new chair and CEO. She’s Womble Carlyle’s first female leader, the first from outside its headquarters in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and at 51, the 140-year-old firm’s youngest-ever head.

A resident of Greenville, South Carolina, Temple now spends much of her time visiting the firm’s 14 offices in seven states and Washington, D.C., sometimes flying north to New York, where her husband, a vice president at sports media giant ESPN, spends his workweek.

The Am Law Daily recently spoke with Temple, who got her start in an Atlanta firm that merged with Womble Carlyle in 1996, about how she came to hold the reins at the firm, her first 100 days and her strategy for building the “superregional” firm of the future, among other things.

Am Law Daily: How did you find yourself in the running for the top leadership post?

Temple: I didn’t even know I was in the running! A couple of years ago, after the Great Recession, the firm decided we needed a new approach to nominating the chair. Traditionally, the retiring chair would look around the table and say, “Who’s next in line?” We decided we were too big for that, and created a nominating process. This is the key to change right here.

The new process required the firm to create a nominating committee. Some were chosen by partnership vote, some by the practice group leaders. You ended up with a diverse committee that wasn’t from any particular office, and it was 50 percent women. The process took a year. The committee hired a consultant to help. They interviewed every partner about what they wanted in a leader, who were the natural leaders, and so forth, and then they started identifying partners who would fit the bill.

At the time I was head of the public securities team, but I wasn’t in senior management. They kept on interviewing me, asking me how I ran the team. They were actually interviewing me but I didn’t understand that. Finally, the nominating committee chair, Beth Jones, called me up and said, “Come to Winston and talk to us. We want to interview you officially for the job. But don’t come unless you’re ready to accept the job.”

Well, I had to think about it. Later that day, I was in the car riding with my husband and our two youngest, who were 5 and 7 at the time. I said, “Beth called me and said she wants me to go to Winston and interview for the chairman position, but I just can’t see myself doing this.” My 7-year-old in the back seat suddenly blurted out, “Oh Mom, you gotta try!” And I thought, if my 7-year old thinks I gotta try, I’m going to try.

Ultimately, I was selected as the nominee, and I was voted in in an up-or-down vote. But I wouldn’t even have been at the table had it not been for this new succession process. It gave the firm the chance to look outside the traditional slate, outside the executive committee table.

ALD: When you were elected, you became the 26th female firm chief executive at an Am Law 200 firms, according to our research on women in Big Law last year. Welcome to the sorority. But is the firm making progress in other ways in increasing the promotion of women? It looks like the most recent data show that women make up 14 percent of equity partners and 47 percent of the nonequity tier.

Temple: We’re about average among our peers in women in terms of all partners, and we have some work to do. But one place where we’re really excelling is in leadership. I’m the chair and CEO, and my vice chair, Ellen Gregg, is also a woman. On our executive committee, 50 percent are women. And a third of our elected management committee seats are filled by women. Also, of our three highest-paid partners, two are women. Their compensation is based on their book, not administrative positions they might hold.

The recent succession process had other big effects on our demographics. Because we have age limits on leadership positions and had a lot of people turning 65, last year we made a whole bunch of other leadership changes. In one day in March 2015, we figured out that we lowered the age of our leadership by an average of 10 years.

ALD: In your December interview with our sister publication the Daily Report in Atlanta, you talked about launching and funding an Innovation Center. Can you tell us about it?

Temple: The whole idea behind this Innovation Center is that we have a lot of creative people at the firm but no place to put their ideas. And now more than ever, law firms need to be nimble and to embrace different ways to provide services to clients.

To decide what to invest in as a firm, we needed to have a process. We created a process and installed a board so that attorneys and staff can apply to have their idea vetted, whether it’s a tech-based idea or an old-school idea. If you need to be off the clock to pursue this opportunity for three months, we can say, “Yeah, that’s a good idea, here’s some funding,” or “This isn’t the time for that now.” We have the board now, but we haven’t begun collecting proposals yet.

We have a history of it with these ancillary businesses, including Bulldox, an e-discovery advisory, and FirmLogic, a life sciences service where we have nurses who analyze medical records, typically in litigation or in audits. They’ve historically been wildly successful. We use them for our own clients, we pitch them to our clients, but they also compete with similar companies in the market. We want to encourage more of it.

ALD: Since the Great Recession, you haven’t grown that much, even though you’ve doubled down in the Carolinas, merging with smaller firms in Charleston and Columbia, South Carolina, in 2011 and 2012, and opening an office in Silicon Valley a few years ago. What’s your strategy going forward? Does a 14-office, full-service midsize firm have a chance in a market where larger, elite firms offer greater geographic reach and offices in major financial centers?

Temple: My vision is Womble Carlyle really being a “superregional” firm for the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast region and possibly beyond. It’s really not a footprint owned by another law firm. Having that superregional presence, we can stay connected culturally. It’s much harder to do that when you’re farther away.

Our region is really strong, it’s growing, there’s a lot of economic development. Atlanta, for example, is home to 18 Fortune 500 companies. We are very high on our region. We don’t want to leave opportunities here by expanding too fast. If we can become really dominant here, our ability to expand elsewhere becomes incredibly easier.

I look at us as an incredible alternative to high-priced Am Law 30 firms. I’ll say what others have parroted back to me: We provide sort of a Wall Street level of service and bench and depth but at Main Street prices. Historically, when I was growing up in the securities business, our biggest competitors were Wachtell and Skadden. It was really hard to compete with them in the late ’80s and early ’90s. They just owned the marketplace. As people realize you can have the exact same bench but be in a building across the street, and at a lesser cost, it’s not a hard sell. It opens the door wide.