Hartford Am Law 200 firm Robinson & Cole, which celebrated its 175th anniversary in February, took historic action in March when Rhonda Tobin became its first-ever female managing partner. In a recent interview, the veteran litigator said she is proud to head up a firm that not only has a rich history, but has recently had “a lot to celebrate in a relatively short amount of time.”
“I think the pandemic did present an unexpected opportunity for us,” said Tobin, who has served 10 years on Robinson & Cole’s five-member managing committee. “I think it enabled us to connect across practice groups and office groups to communicate in a different way than we were used to. We pretty quickly pivoted to the new normal, and I think it enabled us to reach across many geographies and open up some opportunities. I think it did help in terms of team-building, for sure.”
Tobin said recent developments have been transformative, including communications with her own clients during COVID-19. “There are clients I had worked with a couple years before the pandemic who I had never met, and now suddenly we’re having Zoom calls, and now we know each others’ cats, dogs and kids,” she said. “I think COVID-19 did enable us in a sort of strange way to connect a little more personally. We would never wish for this to happen, but there were some silver linings that we took out of it.”
In the past couple of years, Robinson & Cole has increased in size to 450-plus staff, including some 220 lawyers across offices in Connecticut, New York, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Florida and California. Immediate past managing partner Stephen Goldman oversaw an expansion of the firm’s bankruptcy practice in 2019, and last year picked up an eight-member insurance coverage practice from White & Williams to expand Robinson & Cole’s New York City footprint. Under Goldman’s leadership, Robinson & Cole opened new bankruptcy-focused offices in Philadelphia and Wilmington, Delaware, and embarked on a new, three-year strategic plan.
That plan, which focuses on developing a commercial center and adding depth to key practice areas, is central to Tobin’s mission. She noted the firm also added a chief talent officer, who hit the ground running last year as business boomed.
Robinson & Cole’s gross receipts last year increased from just short of $120 million in 2019 to more than $130 million, as reported in The American Lawyer’s recently released Am Law 200. The firm came in at No. 184 of the nation’s top 200.
After postponing a series of celebrations last year, Robinson & Cole held a virtual gathering this past Feb. 11, featuring members of the firm and honored guests recalling a history-making 2020. Beyond surviving and thriving amid the horrors of COVID, the $10 million increase in revenues underscored a successful year at the firm, which first opened its doors in 1845 and counted literary great Mark Twain among its earliest clients. “Our motto has been that we’ve been embracing change for over 175 years,” Tobin said.
Having prided itself consistently on strong camaraderie, Robinson & Cole has also been committed for years to diversity, equity and inclusion, dating back to before the buzzwords became fashionable. “DE&I is not new to us,” Tobin said. “It’s been part of our culture for a really long time.”
Among many firm firsts was the election of Alvin Thompson as the first African American managing partner of a major Connecticut law firm, a full three decades ago in 1991, the same year Tobin joined in the firm’s litigation department.
In June, Robinson & Cole announced it latest DE&I initiatives, including a Juneteenth celebration, providing billable-hour credit for participation in DE&I activities, instituting the use of personal pronouns in correspondence and providing employee-benefit access to a breast milk storage and delivery service for new moms. The firm currently enjoys Mansfield 3.0 certification and has committed to achieving 4.0 status, and is a member of the Law Firm Antiracism Alliance.
Across all practices, Tobin said attorneys and staff deserve kudos for demonstrating resilience amid last year’s challenges, particularly with regard to pro bono efforts and community service. About 120 lawyers at the firm perform leadership roles in some 300 community organizations, and that work did not cease amid quarantines and lockdowns.
“They really kept the mission and the culture of the firm going,” Tobin said. “Being a firm that’s been in Hartford since 1845, community service is incredibly important to us. It’s really embedded in our culture, and we didn’t skip a beat in that regard. A lot of organizations needed us more than ever, and people took the extra time they had and were really able to dedicate time to that community service.”
Tobin said associates who show initiative at Robinson & Cole are the ones most likely to succeed, and she recalled that only a few years into her career, she did just that, expressing an interest in expanding her insurance litigation practice to include professional officers and directors, or POD, law. When an American Bar Association conference came up, Tobin approached management about taking on the specialization.
“I didn’t have to wait to become a partner to do that. There was a spirit of ‘go and find what you love, and we’ll support you.’ And within the insurance world, it really allowed us to branch out and diversify our practice,” she said.
Very early on, Tobin joined Robinson & Cole’s hiring committee, and within three years she was coordinating summer associates. About 15 years ago, she was asked to chair a work-life task force — again, years ahead of its recent rise in popularity as an issue — and in 2007, Tobin was tapped to chair the firm’s litigation section, overseeing about 100 lawyers. Two years later, she joined the firm’s managing committee.
In all of her leadership roles, Tobin said, she regularly tells associates at Robinson & Cole that those who take initiative will invariably find more rewarding and fulfilling careers at the firm.
“I’ve always told associates coming out of law school that I think this is a firm that rewards initiative, even as a summer associate,” Tobin said. “You can sit in your office and work will come to you. Your plate will be full. We’ll make sure of that. But if you really want to guide what you want to do and take the initiative, find out who does the things you want to do and talk to them. You can have a great career without it, but if you take the initiative, you can really guide your career to where you want to be.”
Tobin said she feels “really lucky” to have been supported when she sought out leadership roles, and she tries to pass that lesson down to up-and-coming lawyers. “If you let people know what you want to do, we’re going to try to find a way to make it work,” she said.
As partners and associates have begun returning to the office, following a 15-month COVID-19-induced move to home-based work, Tobin said she is looking forward to seeing everyone again under a recently revised policy on office attendance.
“We’re in phase one, which means anyone who wants to go back to the office is free to do so,” said the new leader. “We’ll be strongly encouraging people to come in at least two days a week for July and August, really to get people used to the commute, and if they’ve got day care or doggy care, or whatever is going on in their life, to get used to that schedule of coming back to the office.”
Part of the new schedule, Tobin said, will be “Welcome Back Wednesdays,” featuring catered lunch in July and August. “I suspect Wednesdays will be a popular day to be in the office this summer,” she laughed. “It will be so great just seeing everybody back together.”