LEGAL TIMES: How is business in the D.C. office?
GRACE SPEIGHTS: Our office and our practice are thriving. The bulk of our office is regulatory work and, under the current administration, the government is regulating. Our office is very busy. I can’t think of any practice in our Washington office that isn’t kicking on all cylinders.
LT: Where does the Washington office fit into the overall view of the firm?
SPEIGHTS: In terms of our strategic goals and outlook, Washington has always been a focus. Even if there are clients that the Washington office has never touched in the past, at some point they have a Washington issue — and when they have that issue, you want to be able to say, "We have a Washington office that covers those regulatory issues."
LT: What is the importance of having a diverse firm?
SPEIGHTS: You have a better shot at getting diversity of thought in how to solve a client’s problem if you bring diverse people to the team. That is one of the reasons we find diversity at least here very important. That comes from the top, from the chairman of our firm. The best talent and the best solutions are going to come when you have diverse thoughts and diverse thinking on your team.
LT: Are clients driving this push for diversity?
SPEIGHTS: I do think that clients having an emphasis on diversity has helped law firms to think about diversity. I don’t believe that folks in law firms in the past were intentionally excluding diverse people. It just wasn’t something they thought about. When clients say, "This is important to us and our business," it has to be important to the law firm’s business.
We still have a long way to go. If you look at the numbers, the number of African-American partners in this town is a little better than when I started practicing law, almost 31 years ago. Not that much better.
LT: What effect has the recession had on law firms?
SPEIGHTS: There is a lot more competition. Clients want to control their expenses, so there is a lot more pressure to do alternative-fee billing. I think those law firms that resist that will have a difficult time moving forward.
We have to deal with the issue that many clients don’t want to pay for first-year lawyers. Classes have shrunk, but even so, we still have to find a way to bring new lawyers into the pipeline and train them.The pie is much smaller. A lot of our clients have taken work [in-house], but they have also bulked up inside. A lot of what we didn’t see 10 years ago are RFPs, requests for proposals, where you are bidding to get the work. [Clients] are moving to a preferred-provider list. If you’re not on the list, you’re not going to get the work.
LT: What was more challenging: raising two kids or managing the office?
SPEIGHTS: The kids. I was fortunate, because my mom took care of my kids. My load was a lot lighter than other folks who don’t have a mother or relative to help. Ninety percent of my matters are outside of D.C. There were times when I did crazy things. I might be on the West Coast at a client function and I would pay my own way to come back and go to something and get back on the plane to go back out. You do what you have to do. I’m not saying [managing the office] is easy, but it’s a lot easier than raising kids.