Orrick Herrington & Sutcliffe was founded in San Francisco during the Civil War. Its current strategic alignment emphasizes three main industries: technology, finance, and energy and infrastructure. The firm entered the New York market in the late 1990s and currently has one of the stronger outposts there of any California-based firm. It significantly expanded its international footprint in 2005 with the absorption of attorneys from the expiring firm of Coudert Brothers.

Chairman Mitchell Zuklie took the helm in spring 2013. Specializing in technology startups and high finance, he has counseled the likes of eHarmony, Royal Dutch Shell, Oracle, and Goldman Sachs. He recently helped navigate Nest Labs’ sale to Google and Goodreads’ sale to Amazon.com.

Zuklie sat down in his Silicon Valley office with ALM Director of Legal Intelligence Dirk Olin to discuss an organizational culture that recently landed the firm on Fortune’s “100 Best Companies to Work For” list.

ALM Intelligence: The Big Law market has undergone massive shifts in recent years. How have you responded, and how has that affected firm culture?

Zuklie: There’s a lot of pressures in Big Law right now. One of the ways to respond is cultural difference. The other is strategy.

So first our strategy is to focus on industries. Those industries for us are tech, energy and infrastructure, and finance. We’re balanced between transactional work and litigation, but we are focused on doing the same types of things for the same clients across the network. And people are collaborating across the network, because after all that’s the reason to have a network.

Now the second piece of it is to be the best law firm to work for. That means being the best place to work for the best people out there. For us, there are several pieces to that. But it’s driven first by the recognition that we are a talent business. Our job, or my job, is first and foremost to identify, attract, and retain the best people — and hopefully inspire them to want to work here.

ALM Intelligence: Is the so-called “war for talent” exaggerated?

Zuklie: The war for talent is tougher than it’s ever been. Enrollment is down 30 percent at major law schools. So it’s not just the lack of people coming from the bottom of the funnel, it’s from the top, too. There’s a fundamental sense that something about Big Law has been broken, and the best people are looking to work at Salesforce or Facebook. They’re not necessarily choosing to go to journalism school or law school, they’re choosing to do different things.

We saw the problem coming. Post-2008, we saw that enrollment was going down. At the same time, the dynamic between law firms and their clients had shifted. So we had to think about how we were going to attract talent in a very tough marketplace. Especially because it’s been getting a little tougher every year.

We’re also committed to making sure that we’re leaving our firm stronger every year, both economically and also in terms of innovation. Law is changing, and we have to be mindful of that, mining big data for quantitative insights as well as qualitative.

ALM Intelligence: Well, how exactly do you do that? Perks?

Zuklie: It’s not merely gym memberships.

The first element is opportunity. People want a chance to come to a place where they’ll work on good work and have a chance to get promoted. That’s important whether you’re an attorney or a staffer.

The second element is having a place where you’ll get meaningful feedback. That creates a chance to grow. As you know, we all invest a lot of time in this place, whether lawyers, partners, or staff members. It’s a demanding place. So you want to get a sense, that’s both fair and real-time, about how you’re doing. You want to get training, whether it’s coaching at the partner level or mentoring at the associate level. You need to have the feeling that you’re progressing in some meaningful way and not just left in a conference room with a box of documents and being told to figure it out.

You also want — and this is an area where the profession is really changing and where we’ve made the biggest dent — you want flexibility and support in what you do. I think the biggest problem for law firms, and this is borne out by the numbers, is that half the people coming out of law school are women, but only 20 percent of partners are women, and an even smaller percentage of people who are at the top of the profession, in terms of leadership or pay, are women. Why is that the case? Not always, but often, it comes along with the issues of childbearing or child rearing.

ALM Intelligence: How have you responded to that?

Zuklie: We think we have the best parental leave policy in the business — we’ve doubled it, so it’s now close to six months — and nine months of a guaranteed job. But more important is that we have an on-ramp and off-ramp in the system. It can be hard ramping down and really hard ramping back up. And we have one person who has been designated Chief Talent Officer, a title that didn’t exist eight years ago, whose job is to help us make sure that we’re applying the very best thinking for each person that’s doing it. You don’t want it to be a case of first impression. You want someone who has the benefit of seeing it all across the firm, in all of our offices, in all of our practice areas. So she can make sure we’re bringing the best thinking to bear, along with people’s coworkers and mentors.

Also, we have a Parental Leave Liaison. She helps make sure that the ramp down is smooth and the ramp up is smooth. That’s probably more important than the time off itself. Undoubtedly, we’re going to do more. We have to. That’s the only way we’re going to attract and keep the kind of talent we want.

ALM Intelligence: So making this transparent is important as a business matter, not just creating an appearance of equity?

Zuklie: Diversity and inclusion are really important. At least they are to the kinds of people we want. They’re important to our management team, as well. You mentioned transparency? I think that’s a hallmark of this. Lawyers are smart and skeptical. That makes transparency a central issue for us. We try to tell it like it is.

Every month I publish something called The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, and there’s always something ugly in there. It’s designed to lay out how the firm’s doing, let people see it, and engage them in a broader dialogue. People are a little unnerved sometimes. When I first started, people were saying “Holy smokes! There’s ugly things!”

Finally, I think people want a sense of meaning in what they do. And we’re fortunate, in that regard, because we’re such a deep firm in tech, maybe the best in the world in tech, according to the depth of our offering. Plus, there’s our work on the energy front, and perhaps particularly on the renewables side and the finance side, which means we’re often helping on major infrastructure projects. All of that means our people naturally find that our work does have meaning.

ALM Intelligence: So your practice areas inform your attorneys’ search for meaning?

Zuklie: Yes, absolutely. But it’s not just the type of work. It’s the feeling that you can control your own destiny — that you can innovate and make changes. So one of the things we’ve introduced is an innovation prize. An associate or a staffer who comes up with the best innovation any year is rewarded and recognized. Last year an associate who worked in our Supreme Court and Appellate group identified two criteria that were mostly like for cert to be granted and wrote a program to figure that out so that we could proactively reach out to people.

ALM Intelligence: A de facto skunkworks?

Zuklie: Exactly! We also ask partners to spend two percent of their time to make the firm better. Not filling out forms in triplicate on how things are going. But a real sense of barn-raising. If you don’t have a new idea, just mentor somebody. That’s the default. But if you have something you want to do, go after it.

ALM Intelligence: Another example?

Zuklie: Sure. Six of our partners two years ago, who were thinking deeply about the issue of recruiting, noted that we do very well with veterans. After all, they get a lot of leadership training early in their careers. So our partners asked, “How can we attract more of them?” And this group got together and said, “Let’s go to a veterans’ career fair.” They noted there wasn’t one. So what did they do? They created one, in coordination with Morgan Stanley and Microsoft. Totally their own initiative. No management oversight. Some support, of course. But that’s exactly what we want to create more of. Individuals leaving a meaningful imprint on what they do. People have made informational videos to inform people internally about an area of their subject matter. People have gone out and changed our forms in a number of ways. They’ve formed groups to improve data analysis on profitability. Others have launched best-friend relationships with other firms where we have holes. I’d say about one-third of our partners have embraced this concept in full. The other two-thirds are either coming at it with a glancing blow or just mentoring a lot more than they did. Which is to the good. But the big point is for people to feel greater ownership about what they’re doing.

ALM Intelligence: What was the genesis of all this? The change in pipeline demographics? Something amorphous in the zeitgeist?

Zuklie: That’s an interesting question. I took over from Ralph Baxter, who had done a great job leading this firm for close to a quarter century. It was a moment of obvious reflection at the firm. I felt strongly that we needed to focus on identifying, attracting, and retaining the best talent. I’ve grown up as a start-up lawyer. I watch the board of my startup companies agonize about how they attract talent in a tight job market here. That left a meaningful impression.

ALM Intelligence: Those are, shall we say, decidedly different cultures, aren’t they?

Zuklie: Yes, but great companies are not formed by foosball tables and beanbag chairs. It’s giving people substantive opportunities. Giving them flexibility. Making sure they feel autonomy and value in what they’re doing. So I’ve had the benefit of watching a lot of clients wrestle with these issues. So it’s a logical thing for me to focus on, and we have a broader management team that is very thoughtful about these things. We were a new management team that had to make decisions after uncertain times. The combination of stability for a long time, followed by a new management team, followed by intense changes in the industry — it all led to a real opportunity.

ALM Intelligence: So how did that sea change alter your actual actions on diversity and inclusion?

Zuklie: Well, 40 percent of our business units are led by women. Likewise, 40 percent of our combined board and management committee are women. That was not the case three years ago. And we’re a stronger firm for it. We also formed a Women’s Advisory Board to go visit outside clients and other experts to find out how they’re addressing this. The product of a lot of that thinking has been demonstrably different numbers when it comes to the students who want to interview with us on campus. I think we’re up 50 percent over the past two years. I think we’ve gone from somewhere in the fifties on The American Lawyer mid-level survey to, I think,  number six this year. And we were just ranked as having the best summer program in our four largest locations, New York, San Francisco, Silicon Valley, and Washington, D.C. It’s not because we have a summer program that’s fluffy. It’s because we’re trying to apply those principles of work and feedback and opportunity.

ALM Intelligence: Your main clientele are very metrics-driven, is your culture metrics-driven?

Zuklie: I wouldn’t say we’re driven by metrics. But we’re increasingly focused on them, in almost every aspect of our business. We probably will become more attentive to the quantitative side. That said, culture is a thing that is hard to pin down. Our ultimate goal is governed by something I’ve called the McKee Doctrine [named after former Orrick Chairman William McKee], which he said more eloquently, but which comes down to the idea that we as partners should leave the firm stronger than we found it. We literally ask all of our partners to address that in their compensation memos. In concert with that, we give out mentoring awards, diversity awards, pro bono awards, the innovation prize. And we do analyze how much time and effort we put into mentoring, for example. Could we do more? Probably. Ultimately, though, I think if you don’t measure something that you’re trying to do, it’s too easy to b.s. your way through it. So I tend to like numbers, but culture can’t be reduced solely to numbers.

ALM Intelligence: Not every lawyer is made to manage. Did all your work with startups give you an “honorary M.B.A.”?

Zuklie: Absolutely. But this is not just me. I want to emphasize, this has been a collective process of setting strategy. It was not some top-down edict. It was based on a specific period of reflection. This was not something that McKinsey dropped on us.

ALM Intelligence: So the commitment to culture is the product of a collective intentionality, right?

Zuklie: Yes.

ALM Intelligence: Doesn’t that make it incumbent on leadership to address the dynamic when someone is not on board?

Zuklie: Very much so. As I said, training and coaching are very important to us. We have 20 different coaches on things like business development. That includes people with M.B.A.s but also the most winning rugby coach in collegiate history. Also, management takes its duty to provide the feedback I spoke about very seriously. That now means a written document to both partners and associates. We also provide feedback for staff, though in a different way. We try to call out successes and things that need to be worked on pretty straight. Someone might have a great year financially, and we might say, “That’s fabulous, but we note that you didn’t fill in your associate reviews or you didn’t meet your pro bono requirements.”

ALM Intelligence: Is that when the rubber meets the road?

Zuklie: We’re not a perfect fit for everybody. We ask that you work really hard. We ask that you adhere to our culture. Serious mentors. When it doesn’t happen, we are willing to make changes.

ALM Intelligence: Last, what about pro bono?

Zuklie: We have a designated head of pro bono in New York who looks for the right opportunities for both the litigation side and the transactional side. We also give strong encouragement to everyone to be on the lookout for their own pro bono opportunities. We’re a top ten firm in pro bono, and we plan to continue that.

——

Subscribe to the ALM Intelligence Analysts Brief, featuring the latest thinking from our analysts delivered straight to your inbox each week.