Almost a year after Eversheds Sutherland was born from a major trans-Atlantic combination, the firm’s English and American co-leaders are embracing a detailed new strategic blueprint, with the ambitious—and, they say, rare—goal of creating a truly cohesive global firm.
The union of London-based Eversheds and Atlanta-based Sutherland Asbill & Brennan last February created a global firm that now has 2,400 lawyers in 66 offices across 32 countries. It is one of the largest of an increasing number of such U.K.-U.S. tie-ups over the last few years, and the firm now employs more than 4,000 people.
While Eversheds Sutherland maintains separate finances for its international and U.S. branches through its structure as an English company limited by guarantee, the firm’s co-leaders, Lee Ranson in London and Mark Wasserman in Atlanta, said an integrated culture is what will determine its success.
“There has not really been a law firm created with a common culture across all international operations,” Ranson said.
“It would be a real prize to get that right: To have the same things prioritized around the world we believe to be a huge competitive advantage,” he added.
One critical payoff will be in the quality of client service, Wasserman said. “If we can tie together people around the world, so they know each other and how each other are working, the service to clients is so much better.”
“Everything revolves around the cultural piece,” he concluded.
The strategic plan for Eversheds Sutherland, which covers the next two years, is comprehensive—addressing culture, technology and innovation, client service, global coverage and growth. The 2020 target “is enough time to accomplish some things, but not too far out,” Wasserman said.
Wasserman brandished a thick packet with lists of specific initiatives during an interview Friday at the firm’s U.S. headquarters in Atlanta. Ranson weighed in via video from the firm’s office in Manchester, where he makes his home.
“You can rely on serendipity—or try and map the destiny of where you want the organization to go,” Ranson said. “We are determined to see the full potential of the combination reached.”
Is Bigger Better?
Combining forces doesn’t always pay off for big law firms. In a time of flat demand for legal services, firms are merging in hopes of capturing more client business across a national or global network, but an ALM Intelligence report last year found that most such combinations from 2000 to 2015 haven’t created significant growth, and instead have cost the firms more than anticipated. For almost one-third of the 50 combinations surveyed, revenue had dropped five years later.
“We heard a lot of stories before announcing the combination of [firms with] people leaving and revenue going backward,” Ranson acknowledged.
“That is not the position we are going to be in at our first-year anniversary,” he said.
Eversheds Sutherland has not yet reported its 2017 financials, but Ranson said that he thinks “people will be pleased with the results we announce.”
Ranson and Wasserman said they did not use a consultant for the strategic plan. Instead it was a group effort within the firm, with input from management teams and practice groups across the globe.
The legacy firms similarly didn’t engage a law firm consultancy as they prepared to combine, Wasserman added.
“We felt we had a good knowledge of our people—that we’d done enough talking to people in the lead-up to the combination that we did not need an outside agency,” he said. “The reason we did the combination in the first place is because we felt the firms were compatible and shared a similar culture, with the same ideas about where the opportunities are.”
The Personal Touch
A big part of creating a common culture is having people get to know each other in person, Wasserman said. Eversheds Sutherland has been investing real money and time in getting its various practice group members together—starting before the combination went into effect last February.
Just last week litigation practice co-heads Paul Worth from London and Ron Zdrojeski from New York were convening the firm’s litigation team leaders from around the world in Atlanta. (There are 150 partners and 400 other lawyers in Eversheds Sutherland’s litigation practice in the United States, Europe, Middle East and Asia.)
Everyone made it despite the snowstorm that hit the region, except for a contingent from Spain that got stuck at the Miami airport, Wasserman said.
During their two days in Atlanta, the litigation leaders set aside a full afternoon on Friday to work through the strategic plan, he said, talking about what to focus on first and the best ways to use technology for client matters.
Taking Tech Seriously
Investing in new legal services technologies is a major priority, Wasserman and Ranson said.
Eversheds Sutherland is earmarking funds to develop new technology offerings that will benefit clients, based on ideas from people across the firm. That funding is separate from routine expenditures on things like software, mobile phones and existing technology infrastructure, Ranson added.
“For the first time, we are really acknowledging to our partners in the business the importance of technology and innovation,” he said.
“There’s a big push to make sure each individual [practice] group is thinking about how best to serve clients in different [industry] sectors,” Wasserman said.
That could mean apps that clients can access on a phone, tablet or computer, like one that the firm’s marquee U.S. state and local tax practice offers clients (called SALT Shaker) to keep them current on local laws and case updates.
It also means new approaches to project management, such as using artificial intelligence software to handle massive amounts of digital documents for a deal or litigation matter.
Focus on Talent
Associates and staff also factor into the strategic plan. Eversheds Sutherland created a “Pass the Baton” program last year, where U.S. associates can visit their colleagues in other offices around the world and vice versa. They meet their far-flung peers, participate in client meetings and learn about doing business worldwide.
Now the firm is starting a worldwide associate board to promote integration across offices and give associates a voice in the global enterprise.
Client-focused training for lawyers from top to bottom is another part of the plan, Wasserman and Ranson said. One goal is to establish consistent approaches and levels of service for clients across all 66 international offices via trainings for client-relationship partners. Another is to institute coaching to help lawyers of all stripes take their relationships with clients to the next level.
Eversheds Sutherland is focusing on diversity and inclusion this year more than it or its legacy firms ever have, the co-leaders said. For the first time, it is setting both numerical and qualitative goals for expanding diversity in its offices worldwide, Wasserman said.
“We’ve got to make sure we’ve got something we’re shooting at, even if we don’t hit it,” he said.
As part of the strategic plan, the firm is emphasizing diversity and inclusion in its internal programming and recruiting, Wasserman said, while also teaming with several clients to expand these efforts.
How will Wasserman and Ranson know two years from now if their strategic plan has succeeded?
Client feedback is one measure, Wasserman said, adding that the firm will assess client service “largely based on what clients tell us.”
“We regularly do client interviews as part of our culture. We’re going to expand that to include surveys,” he said.
Metrics are another measure, Ranson said. “We are talking about what successful looks like, and then we can test against those metrics.”
“[The plan] maps out the next couple of years for Mark and I pretty clearly,” he added.
“Ultimately, I suppose, the biggest sign of success will be to see … in 2020 if [we] are leading a global law firm,” Ranson said.