When Kim Koopersmith takes over the role of chairperson of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld in April, it will usher in a leadership change for the first time in almost two decades.
Koopersmith, currently the firm’s U.S. managing partner, takes over for R. Bruce McLean, who has held the post of chairman since 1993. Under McLean’s leadership, the firm grew from about 350 lawyers in six offices to almost 900 attorneys in 17 offices. In 2011, the firm posted gross revenues of $770 million.
Koopersmith is one of a small group of women law firm leaders. Among AmLaw 100 firms, only a dozen have women in the role of managing partner or chairman, according to a recent survey by The American Lawyer. Koopersmith’s ascension also marks the first time a woman has chaired the firm.
The National Law Journal caught up with Koopersmith, a commercial litigator, in Akin Gump’s Washington office on January 16. (She now splits her time between Washington and New York.)
NLJ: As chairman, Bruce McLean transformed Akin Gump from a Texas regional firm to a national firm with offices overseas. Where do you see the firm going under your leadership?
Koopersmith: I think [McLean] has positioned us very well over the last 20 years. We have close to 900 lawyers. We have an expanding international footprint. I started the morning on a call with Asia, because that is becoming an increasingly important market for us. We took advantage of [name partner Robert] Strauss’ relationships when he was in the Soviet Union. We became very successful in our Moscow practice. I think that caused us to understand that we can be very successful in taking our firm’s spirit and going into emerging markets and successfully cultivating legal relationships. I see us doing more of that. I see our global footprint increasing. The world is going global and as trite as that sounds, there are reasons that law firms have to look beyond the national boundaries that we’ve been operating under.
What are some of those emerging markets?
Certainly Eastern Europe falls in that category. Various markets in Asia fall in that category. South America falls in that category. There is a clear recognition that the world is not only becoming more connected, but that the legal requirements of our clients are global, and you’re going to need to be able to address that.
What are some of your goals as chairperson?
I think our ability to be responsive to clients and addressing their needs for certainty in how much legal services cost, in how our cases are staffed and how our deals are staffed to reflect their need to deliver efficiently within their own legal structure — one of my goals is to be sure that our partners can respond to all of those needs. On pricing, on staffing, on how we do our work. I think we have done a good job on this. We hired someone last year devoted to strategic pricing and project-management functions. One of my goals for 2013 is to start to implement that and get our partners the resources they need to be able to talk to our clients and be able to say we can do this work for you and we can do it on a cost-effective basis and we can deliver really high quality.
What does it mean to be one of a small group of female law firm leaders?
Not surprisingly, I have a fair amount of thoughts on this. In terms of my election to the chair of the firm, I think that I was elected by my partners having very little to do with gender at all. When the succession committee looked at the attributes they were looking for in the next chair of the firm, I don’t think that any of those attributes or discussions were gender-related. Having said that, I think it’s a pretty remarkable thing. Not only has there been no resistance, but people have been very comfortable from the start in having a woman in a senior leadership position. It’s so rare, because you have seen so many firms who have not succeeded in doing it. Huge amount of credit goes to [McLean] for setting a tone where he gave me leadership opportunities, but a huge amount of credit [also] goes to the partners who were always very comfortable with having this arrangement.
I didn’t expect to feel any particular reaction to the fact that I was a woman being elected chair, but I will tell you that I probably got 600 emails after the announcement and literally hundreds of them were from women, some of whom I knew and a fair amount were women who I have never met. GCs of Fortune 500 companies, women at other law firms, women at other industries, all saying that they found it incredibly empowering to hear that I had been named chair. I did take a step back and realized that it does have some significance for people. I have tried to appreciate that it means a lot even if for me it was just a matter of plugging away at doing a good job and running the law firm so that my partners had confidence in me.
Is there an end to the rough legal market?
I think the world has changed. I think maybe it was kind of like those various stages of grief that lawyers went through. I think we are now in acceptance and proactive adaptation. I think that you are going to deal, just like you would with client issues. Our clients are focused on controlling cost[s] and making sure that matters are staffed appropriately. Let’s work with these things to make them positives for our clients instead of closing [our] eyes and hoping that the glory days of the past will come back. I think there are a lot of opportunities to do things creatively, differently, and work with clients to come up with solutions.
Matthew Huisman can be reached at email@example.com.