The firm that is today known as Baker Donelson was founded in the late 1800s. It is a storied institution in the state of Tennessee. Indeed, the name Baker refers to one of its legacy firms, founded by the grandfather of the late Howard Baker, Jr., who served as U.S. Senate Majority Leader and White House Chief of Staff and who was the firm’s last lawyer at the original Huntsville office until his death in 2014.
The product of multiple mergers, the firm today remains regional — its footprint stretching from Texas and Florida, through the southeast to Washington, D.C. Despite that geography, it counts more than 650 attorneys and enjoys a national reputation for its litigation and lobbying practices. It has also landed on Fortune’s “100 Best Places to Work” list for the last seven years.
Chairman and CEO Ben Adams has been with the firm for 35 years, serving in his current post since 2003 while maintaining practices in both corporate transactions and estate planning. He recently sat down in his Memphis office with ALM Director of Legal Intelligence Dirk Olin to discuss the firm’s philosophy of workplace management and community service.
ALM Intelligence: How have you maintained your firm’s environment while also climbing into — and up — the ranks of the Am Law 100?
Adams: Sometimes people think there’s tension between culture and business. But I think the right culture is a business necessity. Private practice is extremely demanding, from a long hours point of view and from a high-pressure intensity point of view. Job one is outstanding client service, and having your people properly motivated is the only way you’re going to get that level of service. Big Law has become more and more a team sport — from the mailroom to the receptionist to the legal secretaries and paralegals, up to the senior partner. You need great work, but that means more than just having the smartest lawyer. So everything flows from our approach to motivate teamwork, which comes from the excellent culture.
ALM Intelligence: What programs or systems do you have in place to make that sentiment real and sustainable?
Adams: What are the ways that we make it happen? We start by pursuing talented, nice people who will be committed to our clients, our community, and each other. Of course, it’s not just about who you hire but also who you keep. We have built programs for professional development, for pro bono, for community service, and for different ways for our people to support each other. That requires a framework, with communications going in myriad directions. And the key is for people to feel part of something bigger than themselves
ALM Intelligence: Do you spend a lot of time measuring that?
Adams: We use a lot of surveys, in addition to Fortune. But really the question is just how is this lived, how do we take care of each other? When Katrina hits or one of our people has a child with cancer or there’s a flood in Nashville or what’s recently happened in Baton Rouge, we respond. And that’s true when there’s a need for the all-nighter to pull together for an important case. With all those things we’re looking for people who are happy to do it rather than whining about it. Metrics are important, but they’re limited when talking about culture. It’s hard to measure esprit de corps. For example, there’s a talent show to raise money for ArtsMemphis, which is kind of like the United Way for arts in Memphis. We have a band with members from the mailroom and partners in it that’s played that event for over 10 years. It’s a family event for us. You can’t measure that, but you can feel things like that that tell you you’re doing something right.
ALM Intelligence: You mentioned the importance of communications.
Adams: Extremely important. Weekly blogs. Monthly staff meetings. Monthly attorney meetings. Practice group meetings. Annual reports on client service. Annual reports on how we’re performing. Regular office visits. There are countless ways you have to communicate. We have something called The Daily Docket where groups of people meet with a docket leader. They get together for 10 minutes with a prep sheet we give them on one of our client service standards. Or they might talk about some firm success or something else that is going on in the firm. So it’s entertaining and informative. But it’s also glue building. The secretaries are all there. The partners don’t participate as much as I’d like, but they participate. That’s everyday.
ALM Intelligence: How do you recruit for talent in a legal world filled with personalities who might be, well, at odds with the kind of culture you’re talking about?
Adams: With associates, say for our summer program, you’re not only looking for academic accomplishments and work ethic — those are a given — but you’re looking for people with people skills. In an interview that might not be so easy to determine, but when you have someone for the summer, it makes it a lot easier to judge how they’ll fit in. You see how they take responsibility, what their communication skills are like, what their social interactions are like. You see people outside work. You see how people treat subordinates. With lateral partners, it’s harder, but a lot of times we know them and have history with them. Plus our culture is known, which creates a certain amount of peer pressure, so when they get here, even if they don’t think it’s important, it becomes important to them. Most of them. Do we have a few jerks? Of course we do. You can’t be this big without having a few jerks. But our peer pressure does a good job of affecting those who might otherwise be jerk-oriented. And then there are the occasional ones where we have to have “the conversation.” But not many.
ALM Intelligence: So higher margins might sometimes incur unacceptably high maintenance?
Adams: That’s right. And in the old days you put up with that. It’s just the way it was. It was normal to have a big division between partners and associates, between lawyers and staff. We’ve tried to get rid of those lines, and I think we’ve done a pretty good job of that. And also, we’re big enough where no person is indispensable. They’re just not. I’m not either. So you don’t feel bad about saying, “Look, you’re really disruptive. One bad apple can ruin a whole floor. You can’t operate that way in this firm.” And people get that and change their behavior. Or they don’t, and eventually they move on. But you don’t normally have to have a big shout-down. They figure it out, with some coaching.
ALM Intelligence: With lots of people demanding better work-life balance, what about benefits?
Adams: Let’s talk about parental leave. We moved it up to 16 weeks, which is one thing. But we also went to a “ramp-down, ramp-up” policy. For the life of me, I don’t understand why every professional services firm doesn’t do this. Take third- or fifth-year associate. They’re working hard, have great relationships with clients and the lawyers they work with. But, it’s time for them to go on leave. Now it’s often not healthy for them, or the client or the firm, to go out cold turkey, be out for four months and come back cold turkey. That makes most of them miserable. So we have a “ramp-down, ramp-up” and we let primary caregivers take that 16 weeks over 40 weeks. However they want to do it. If they want to do it four months straight, fine. But, most want to ease out and ease their way back in. We give them full billable and dollar credit for the whole 16 weeks. For the non-primary caregiver, we give three weeks spread over 20 weeks. As a matter of fact, we’ve had more men take us up on this than women. It’s been a huge hit. It’s so good for their relationships, their skills, for their ability to stay engaged. It keeps them in the loop. When they’re ready, they don’t have to start over with assignments. It lets them stay meaningfully involved at whatever level they want.
ALM Intelligence: You said men avail themselves of this perhaps even more than women, but talk about your firm’s approach to female employees.
Adams: We have a women’s initiative that’s made us much more intentional about our leadership. It’s not just all a bunch of white males in leadership. Of our 12-person board of directors, four are women. The number two person in the firm [President, COO Jennifer Keller] is a woman. We have six or seven practice group leaders who are women, three or four office managing shareholders who are women. So we’ve been very intentional about that. The point is to help all our people, whatever space they’re in, to reach their full potential. They win, and we win. And remember, there are all these women in-house lawyers who are the major drivers of legal services these days. And women lawyers market to them differently. They don’t typically do ballgames and hunting and golf.
ALM Intelligence: You’ve made Fortune’s list for seven straight years. Did something happen eight years ago?
Adams: Well, we’ve really had a supportive and friendly culture my whole 35-year career here. But we weren’t nearly as intentional about it. And about a decade ago we got a lot more intentional about programs that foster this. Better communication. We were already transparent, but we became even more transparent. We started putting greater effort behind the community stuff, the internal support, and getting rid of the lines between groups. And success breeds success. Now that we’re on the list, our people don’t want to be off the list. It puts pressure on you to stay intentional, and I think that’s healthy. So we send people out there to other law firms and to businesses, because businesses can give you a lot of angles that you might not have thought about.
ALM Intelligence: How do you conduct recognition programs?
Adams: Lots of ways. We have “Above the Bar” awards. Our weekly updates include accolades. Each office has things like “teammate of the year” or “best legal secretary of the year” or “associate of the year” and a pro bono award and a “diversity champion” and a “mentor of the year.” And then that follows up into firm-wide awards, with a big banquet. Recognition is very important. If you want people to feel they’re part of something bigger than themselves, you really need it.
ALM Intelligence: You’ve mentioned pro bono and community service — are those distinct initiatives here?
Adams: There’s a lot of overlap, but they’re also distinct. We have a pro bono shareholder and a pro bono committee, and we’re very engaged in homeless shelters and an online pro bono service that reaches any area of Tennessee, which is particularly helpful in the rural areas. And it’s been so successful that we’ve taken that nationwide with the ABA. We have something like 30 or 40 states that are going to implement a version of that program. We also do a lot with so-called debtor prisons to combat that vicious cycle where people go to jail for failure to pay fines. So pro bono is driven by the lawyers, whereas community service is more firm-wide. Each office has their own community service program, and we have firm commitments too. We give each member of our staff eight hours of paid leave for community service. You won’t find many firms that encourage their staff to do that. There’s also a lot of support for our people to support each other, when people are enduring particular hardships. Or when there are big events, like in Baton Rouge recently with the floods — people donate from all over the firm, and the firm donates too. People also willingly donate their own paid time off to others when they’re going through something. So it’s local-specific and with firm-wide support.
ALM Intelligence: Your footprint stretches from Texas through Florida and up to D.C. So you’re big, but you’re a regional firm. The view from your window is not Central Park or the Loop — it’s the Mississippi River. Does that affect your culture?
Adams: I think it plays into it in several different ways. The southern United States tends to be friendlier and more gentle. I do think that helps. Too, we are mostly in mid-market cities, and we’re not quite on the same rate — revenue per lawyer, profit per lawyer, the treadmill — we work really hard, but we’re not in the same game that the money center firms are in. We do really well for our clients, but we can’t really compete with a New York firm, given leverage and the rate structure and all that. We laugh about having a Southeastern Conference culture. A lot of people in the firm have loyalty to some SEC school — from Texas A&M to Florida and all the way up. And that leads to a camaraderie and friendly competition and some humor that goes with that.
ALM Intelligence: Speaking of location, the pursuit of diversity can be quite location-specific. Do you have challenges on that score?
Adams: Certainly. We have commonalities and differences. Texas has a lot more Hispanics than other regions. Most of our offices are part of communities with significant African-American populations. Our Diversity Chair and Committee are actively engaged in both recruiting and training and client development. Very involved with LCLD [the Leadership Council on Legal Diversity]. We have our own diversity scholarship program. And we go to a lot of schools that are more geared to diversity. We are about 8- to 9-percent minority. We could do better, but we’ve come a long way in recent years. And, of course, minorities differ. Asian Americans, by most accounts, are doing quite well, but they are less represented in our footprint, so I’m basing that more on anecdote and statistics. Our main challenge is with African-American students — both recruiting and helping them succeed. Of course, one of the frustrations you’ll hear from the private practice side is that you’ve got a talented, successful African-American lawyer, and then your client takes them. And that’s frustrating, but they have the same initiatives that we do. We’ve done poorly compared to other professions. We have to be honest about that. We can’t just blame the pipeline. We have to improve the pipeline. And mentoring. Because whatever walk of life students come from, if they’re the first-generation in law, it’s a rude awakening. So you have to help people and mentor them and sponsor them and make sure they get good work assignments. A lot of big companies are stepping up their demand on firms assigning minority lawyers, and I think it’s going to take that kind of pressure. Money talks.