Simon Malko, Manning, & Martin

Morris, Manning, & Martin’s newly elected managing partner Simon Malko will formally assume his leadership position Jan. 1 as the youngest leader in the 42-year-old firm’s history.

Malko, 46 and taking over from Louise Wells, said he thought his age might cause the partnership to look elsewhere for a new MP to lead an Am Law 200 firm with nearly $130 million in revenue last year. But he said the choice is emblematic of his saying, “At MMM, we don’t make you wait your turn to be successful.”

Malko said he travels from Atlanta to the firm’s second-largest office in Washington, D.C., once or twice a month. The following is a condensed conversation he had with The National Law Journal on a December trip to the nation’s capital about his expectations for the coming year, prospective head count and geographical growth and his vision for the firm’s future.

How do you think things will change under your leadership?

It’s a question that I reflect on if not every day, every week, which is how do you approach, how do you follow a great leader? Because leadership has to be genuine. So I have to be me. So there are little things that you can do—change the structure of your partner meetings. Add little events that are sort of different for me. But you’ve got to be careful not to change things just for change’s sake, right? And Louise did so many things so well that we’re in a pretty good place as far as the way we managed the firm and the day-to-day governance of the firm.

So I don’t perceive any big changes, it’s just I’m a different person. So my personality will be different, but the keys to Louise’s success, some of them are things that I certainly think are some of my strengths that I’ll continue. Like Louise is the best listener I’ve ever met. That’s an important trait in my job, because I have 85 partners, in essence I have 85 clients. And what I’ve learned is clients want you to listen to what is concerning them.

So it’s that balance between changing things a little bit, just so people know you’re you. Like I’ve taken a different office; that may not sound like much, but I specifically said I want a different office in the firm. Just because that’ll be my office. I don’t want people to walk in and forget that I’m a different person. And that was some good advice that I got early on, was just find little things that you can do to sort of make it your own, but if it’s not broke don’t fix it. And there are so many things at our firm that are working well right now, so I’m fortunate to be coming into a role that doesn’t really require any major overhauls.

NLJ: Morris Manning opened an office in D.C. approximately 15 years ago, which is new relative to the overall history of the firm. What will the D.C. market bring to the firm going forward to the extent that you can predict things?

SM: I think that this is a very good strategic market if you want to increase your national footprint. In my experience, having worked in New York for awhile, I think it’s very hard to break into the New York market. I think there are sort of the big New York firms that are established, and there are some firms that have done it and been successful, but I think that that’s a very hard market to break into.

We, D.C., we already had a presence here, and so it was sort of a natural extension and I just feel like there’s much more of an opportunity for us to try to create a presence here than it would be if we stepped into New York and sort of planted a flag or acquired a five- or 10-person firm in New York and then tried to build up a presence that way. The New York market is congested. It’s because that’s where a lot of the work is, but that is not something we’re looking at. But D.C. seems to be, since we already had a presence here seemed to be a logical place where we could really grow our national reputation.

And part of our strategic plan is we will keep our eye on the horizon for another strategic geographical expansion. And it’s hard to say where it is, I think it will be further west. Although we can’t get too much further east from here, but from Atlanta I would think it would be further west.

NLJ: Still in the same region of the country or perhaps the Midwest—?

SM: I think Texas is intriguing to us. Dallas is an intriguing market for us simply because there are a lot of parallels between Atlanta and Dallas. We are open to finding the right fit if it makes strategic sense from either our existing client base or our existing practice groups.

We feel like we are in a good position to pursue top prospects because even though we are an Am Law 200 firm—I think we were 178th a year ago—our profits per lawyer are much higher. So we’re smaller, but we’re highly profitable. So that is a good sales pitch. Frankly, to the extent a portion of my job is lateral recruiting, my partners have given me a lot to recruit with. When I go to meet with people to recruit, what I can offer is an environment that may take some of the bureaucracy out of their life—may add flexibility for them to grow and manage their practice, offer alternative fees—and we’re highly profitable. Those are two pretty good things to offer.

In my experience what lawyers want is to feel like they’re valued. I think we do a good job of that. I think that they want to feel like they’ll be compensated fairly. I think we do a good job of that. And I think they want to feel like they have an opportunity to grow. And because we pride ourselves on the management with a light touch and minimal bureaucracy and maximum flexibility, we have, we are very attractive to lateral candidates whose current firm may just not want to bother with an alternative fee arrangement.

NLJ: What sort of laterals are you looking for? … And when you’re looking for laterals, are there particular practice areas or things such as strategic growth in Texas that you’re considering?

SM: Sure, I think one of the areas that, and you know Texas is just an example.

NLJ: It’s a hot market.

SM: It’s a hot market. We have been pretty opportunistic over the years, and that’s served us pretty well. The first test is the culture test. And again, people talk about that all the time, but every now and then, you can get sort of one bad apple and it can spoil the barrel. And that’s just true. People who don’t buy into the notion of liking where they work and liking the people they work with and people who have sharp elbows and don’t want to take a team approach and don’t buy into the concept of fairness, those are folks we want to steer clear of. And folks who don’t like our consensus approach.

Consensus is a funny thing. I think it’s a wonderful thing, but it takes time. And so, I have experienced in my career, not necessarily here but at other places, people who I just know would not have the patience for a system where to make a major change you need to build consensus. Their inclination is “I’m important, I’m a rainmaker, this is how it should be, this is just what it’s going to be.” That is the complete opposite of the way we operate.

And so when we’re meeting laterals, we are very open about we’re a consensus firm, and if that’s something that’s going to frustrate you, if you’re going to get annoyed that it’s going to take five meetings to come to a meeting of the minds about big decisions—not small decisions, but big decisions. If you’re going to get annoyed that it’s going to take maybe five meetings to come to a consensus on a big decision as opposed to the executive committee just walking in and just dictating, then we are not the firm for you.

As far as what we’re looking for, ideally it’s folks whose practices are undervalued because their firms either aren’t focused on that practice area because for some reason firms decide certain practices just aren’t worth the effort or they’re trying to brand themselves as a certain type of law firm and so they have a practice that’s just not part of their brand anymore. So they just say you can go.

So people who are underappreciated and undervalued because we certainly pride ourselves on being able to appreciate folks and what they bring to the table. And we sort of pride ourselves on rarely saying no to a reasonable request. You have to spend money to make money, and we have to trust in each other, and so if someone comes to me and says, “I want to put on a conference in some faraway land because that happens to be where the manufacturers of this particular product are and that product we think is going to be the next hotbed of products liability litigation over the next 10 years,” how can I say no to that? And it doesn’t have to go through 12 layers of committee. So that’s what we’re looking for. Folks who are undervalued and we bring them in and we support them, and the upside is incredible.

Note: This story has been corrected to reflect that Morris Manning first opened a D.C. office 15 years ago, not five.