Julianna Ryan, founding partner of Kaufman Borgeest & Ryan, spoke to the New York Law Journal about the advantages and challenges of being a midsize law firm in New York. She said that midsize firms are better situated to foster a collegial atmosphere where junior lawyers can maintain a “favorable work-family balance” without losing ground in their careers. This is particularly important to millennials, she said.
The Q&A is part of an occasional series.
Q: How big is your firm, where is it located and what are its primary areas of practice and focus?
A: KBR is comprised of 130 attorneys practicing out of seven offices in Manhattan; Valhalla, New York; Garden City, New York; Stamford, Connecticut; Parsippany, New Jersey; Cherry Hill, New Jersey; and Calabasas, California, outside of Los Angeles. Main practice areas include all manner of health care defense, employment practices defense (EPL), high-exposure general liability, defense of engineers and architects (A&E), and a national insurance coverage practice—especially directors’ and officers’ liability (D&O), EPL, and long-term care (LTC).
Q: Please explain your firm’s governance structure and compensation model.
A: The firm is managed by a management committee, with an emphasis on decision-making by consensus that also reflects consensus among all the equity partners of the firm. There are also several other committees that deal with various business functions, practice development, training/mentoring, technology advancement, etc. Associates and select staff also serve on these committees, as well as partners.
Q: What do you view as the two biggest opportunities for your firm, and what are the two biggest threats?
A: The biggest opportunity for our firm is continued growth through outstanding performance of legal services and consistent favorable results attained for our clients. Another big opportunity for our firm is geographic growth and expansion, and the opportunities arising from the high percentage of female attorneys and female partners, which sets us apart from most firms.
The biggest threat to the defense bar, generally, is the trend toward commoditization of legal services that fails to account for the quality of the service and case results. All firms do not deliver the same results. Outcomes do matter, and we pride our firm on our effective performance resulting in superior case outcomes.
Q: After the recession hit, the prevailing theory was that midsize firms would start to see more work come their way from large clients who could no longer justify paying Big Law rates. What has been your experience?
A: Big Law, as you call it, is short for those large firms serving corporate America with transactional, tax, regulatory and compliance work. Our practice is about defending professionals and others in liability cases. Big Law’s role in our space is very limited.
Q: Are your clients pushing for more alternative fee arrangements, and if so what types? Is your firm amenable to those requests?
A: KBR has utilized alternative fee arrangements and continues to do so in the right circumstances. In the litigation defense arena, these arrangements can sometimes be ethically challenging. We are mindful that any fee arrangement that constrains the lawyer’s professional judgment in the handling of a matter is unacceptable and are guided accordingly. Alternative fee arrangements must reflect that flexibility necessary to allow the lawyer to meet the client’s fee goals, while also permitting the lawyer to fully and completely satisfy—and surpass—his or her compliance obligations consistent with professional and ethical standards.
Q: There is much debate around how law firms can foster the next generation of legal talent. What advantages and disadvantages do midsize firms have in attracting and retaining young lawyers, particularly millennials?
A: More junior lawyers, and particularly millennials, are looking for more than a paycheck. They want to work with colleagues whom they respect, colleagues that share a love of the law, and colleagues that promote a favorable “work-family” balance. Midsize firms are better positioned than large law firms to create and maintain a more favorable collegial environment and offer flexibility that does not knock career advancement off track.
Q: Does your firm employ any nonlawyer professionals in high-level positions (e.g. COO, business development officer, chief strategy officer, etc.)? If so, why is it advantageous to have a nonlawyer in that role? If not, have you considered hiring any?
A: KBR employs nonlawyers in many key positions, including those in marketing, finance and technology. The firm has considered, but has not yet moved to, employing professional managers, but does rely on outside business consultants.
Q: What if any technology advancements have you made in your firm in recent years? What are the challenges in implementing tech changes?
A: Technology and the advancement of technology tools is central to KBR’s mission and plans for the future, and the level of our investment in technology sets us apart from other firms in our practice space. Mobile capabilities are now a key to improving client responsiveness and connectivity. Technology is equally important in the courtroom; yesterday’s white exhibit boards have been replaced with large-scale and interactive imaging capabilities that will impress the jury, simplify the story of the defense and better deliver favorable outcomes. KBR also has invested greatly in back office infrastructure, including business continuity and disaster recovery assets.
Q: What would you say is the most innovative thing your firm has done recently, whether it be internal operations, how you work with clients, etc.?
A: Among the most significant innovations, KBR now has the ability to closely budget and predict the costs of litigation, which helps to manage client expectations. The wide implementation of mobile devices and use of e-discovery both have permitted KBR to better deliver legal services.
Q: Does your firm have a succession plan in place? If so, what challenges do you face in trying to execute that plan? If you don’t currently have a plan, is it an issue your firm is thinking about?
A: Our partnership agreement contemplates management succession. Success and succession go hand-in-hand. Most critical to success and succession is continuity of service levels and maintaining and growing client relationships by exposing younger attorneys to the clients at all times.