Cover Story

Legal Rebels 2011: Big Change in BigLaw


BigLaw and innovation? This year’s crop of Legal Rebels demonstrates that those are not necessarily contradictory terms.

Certainly the major-firm environment has its soothing perks in salary, specialization and star power. And as the legal profession struggles under the pressures of technology, rising competition, client demands and a still-strained economy, it would be hard to blame those lawyers in the front row if they simply kept their seats and rode out the storm.

But there are those for whom no easy path exists. They see the future and find fresher, faster and better ways to deal with it; and in doing so they are remaking their corner of the profession through the power of innovation. That makes them Legal Rebels.

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Photo by Callie Lipkin

Whether manager, partner, vendor, associate or paralegal administrator, they are exploring new areas of growth on underserved continents, more intensive ways to challenge job applicants, coupon-style offers to lure in new business, tech-savvy ways to share knowledge and speed communication. They are even taking legal services outside the ubiquitous law-practice model, challenging the very definition of what the legal profession is.

On the following pages we will introduce you to this year’s crop of 10 rebels, all current or former staffers of National Law Journal 250 firms. We’ll be posting more expansive profiles of each, along with video interviews, on LegalRebels.com throughout September. These 10 join the 60 Legal Rebels featured in the first two years of the project. See page 41 for more online-only Rebels features we’ll be posting this month.

Even amid floors of offices across international locations, each of us is still responsible for our own professional success. But creating on the field of the megafirm can bring more than individual triumph; it can change the game itself. Join us in celebrating those who dare to take on the rules. They are living the revolution.


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Photo by Dave Moser ©2011

Career Conversations

Michael Subak
Partner, Pepper Hamilton (Philadelphia)
Age: 45
University of Pittsburgh School of Law

At Pepper Hamilton, summer associate callback interviews can sound like a partner case review or an oral examination. In any event, they are more than the usual elevator speech, and Subak would have it no other way. The idea came from associates, who decided from their own experience that the process should be more substantive. Partners embraced the idea, and the approach is so successful that the firm now uses these “interactive sessions” for lateral associate interviews too. The interviews aren’t dispositive, but they give the firm a feel for the candidate’s approach to problem-solving in a BigLaw environment. “It will allow people to say they know what it’s like to work here,” Subak says. “This place isn’t for everybody.” —S.F.W.

Full Profile and Interview Video »


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Photo by David A. White

Making It Lean

Lisa J. Damon
Partner, Seyfarth Shaw (Boston)
Age: 55
Fordham University School of Law

When you get paid by the minute, becoming more efficient might seem like a bad idea. Damon helped Seyfarth Shaw move past that notion. Borrowing heavily from the Six Sigma corporate management plan, she helped fashion a client-oriented work structure called SeyfarthLean, which is now utilized by all the firm’s practice groups. A former schoolteacher who once had a dog-walking business on the side, Damon led an analysis of 100 litigation matters that resulted in a restructuring of Seyfarth’s associates, a greater emphasis on technology and a move away from dependence on billable hours. —S.F.W.

Full Profile and Interview Video »


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Photo by Dave Moser ©2011

Empire Builder

Francis B. Burch Jr.
Chairman, DLA Piper global board (Baltimore)
Age: 63
University of Maryland School of Law

Burch heads one of the most successful law firms in the history of the profession. DLA Piper boasts 4,200 lawyers in 76 offices in 30 countries and annual revenues of nearly $2 billion. Just 12 years ago, he was managing partner of Baltimore-based Piper & Marbury. But at a breakfast meeting with Lee I. Miller of Chicago-based Rudnick & Wolfe, the two developed a vision of the emerging global legal market. That discussion, memorialized in a two-page memo, drove a decade of explosive global growth—Burch calls it a “high-wire act”—that culminated in 2005 with a three-firm merger that created DLA Piper, the leading international megafirm. —R.M.Z.

Full Profile and Interview Video »


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Photo by Dave Moser ©2011

African Adventurer

Jeffrey R. Krilla
Principal, SNR Denton (Washington, D.C.)
Age: 42
Georgetown University Law Center

A former State Department official co-chairing SNR Denton’s Africa committee, Krilla has fond memories of negotiating deals on the continent over feasts of bush rat and camel’s milk. He fell in love with Africa after graduating from foreign service school. Krilla served as Africa regional director for the International Republican Institute and as a deputy to Condoleezza Rice. Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal hired Krilla to grow its Africa practice. Today SNR Denton has 23 offices on the continent. Krilla says traditional industries tied to oil, diamonds and gold still wield heft in the region’s commerce. But less traditional industries are developing with the emergence of a viable middle class. Though he’s not licensed to practice law, clients don’t seem to mind—a reflection, say fans, of the changing nature of the legal industry. —S.F.W.

Full Profile and Interview Video »


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Photo by Callie Lipkin

Working Wiki

Paula Nascimento
Paralegal, Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton (New York City)
Age: 41

She is the paralegal’s paralegal, one who has learned to use technology in ways that are as novel as they are efficient. Glancing at her computer screen, Nascimento can watch her staff at Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton consult an online wiki site she created—stocked with training manuals, firm policies, question-and-answer forums, templates, instructional videos and even a community blog. The law firm had originally intended its investment in wiki technology to allow lawyers to share documents. But Nascimento saw the wiki as an opportunity to build a collaborative training and management tool. The process not only increases efficiency and organization—the paralegals often create matter-specific checklists and document tasks in the wiki, rather than through clunky email chains—it also lowers training costs that are often passed on to clients. —R.M.Z.

Full Profile and Interview Video »


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Photo by Callie Lipkin

2.0 Toolbox

Nithya Das
Associate, Goodwin Procter (New York City)
Age: 30
Brooklyn Law School

Gumption (and an innate sense of business development) has propelled Goodwin Procter associate Das into the spotlight among clients and colleagues—not to mention venture capitalists. Melding a variety of social media campaigns, she’s constantly developing new marketing models that engage clients and boost her practice. And through creation of Founder’s Toolbox, a companion blog to Goodwin Procter’s Founder’s Workbench website for startup entrepreneurs, she’s elevated the firm’s brand recognition and her own. You can also find her on the Hungry Desi blog, where she posts about traditional Indian food and spicy vegetarian dishes. —R.M.Z.

Full Profile and Interview Video »


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Photo by Callie Lipkin

Back-to-School Boss

Mel M. Immergut
Chair, Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy (New York City)
Age: 64
Columbia Law School

It wasn’t his plan to send 450 Milbank associates from across the globe to Harvard. But the moment his Munich-based colleague Norbert Rieger suggested it, Immergut knew the idea was a good one. Led by Harvard’s law and business faculty, with the assistance of Milbank partners, firm associates with three to seven years’ service receive intensive training in leadership and personal development, business and finance, and law. Such training is common in business schools, but the Milbank-Harvard collaboration marks the first time a law firm has committed to an on-site, multiyear initiative for not only high-profile partners or superstar junior lawyers, but all of the firm’s associates. —R.M.Z.

Full Profile and Interview Video »


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Photo by Callie Lipkin

The Disrupter

David Perla
Co-founder, Pangea3 (New York City)
Age: 42
University of Pennsylvania Law School

The day Perla and his good friend Sanjay Kamlani met to hash out their plan for Pangea3, their purpose was both simple and disruptive—to turn the traditional law firm model inside out. A former corporate lawyer and a vice president at the online career service Monster, Perla knew three things well: human resources and recruitment, Internet and technology, and law. But he also knew that India held the future. They put together enough venture capital to allow them to experiment with highly trained legal professionals in India who set new standards for such baseline legal responsibilities as due diligence and e-discovery. The company, which is opening offices in Dallas and Ann Arbor, Mich., was sold in November to Thomson Reuters, owners of West Legal Publishing, for an estimated $35 million. And even under new management, the firm is still turning the traditional law firm model inside out. —R.M.Z.

Full Profile and Interview Video »


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Photo by David A. White

The Deal Maker

Paul Sweeney
Partner, Foley Hoag (Boston)
Age: 45
Boston College Law School

Sweeney didn’t expect to make money off a $250 startup incorporation package that Foley Hoag offered in April on the deal site LevelUp. But marketing the firm to thousands in the Boston area has, in its way, proved priceless. Owned by one of Sweeney’s clients, LevelUp offers progressively better deals on purchases, and buying the Foley Hoag incorporation deal qualified purchasers for accounting services for $150, then a meeting with a venture capitalist for $1. The buyers, limited to 10, turned out to be well-connected entrepreneurs—some of whom, now clients, have referred other business to the firm. When he first presented the idea, some seasoned lawyers were pushed to the edge of their comfort zones. Now, they’d do it again “in a heartbeat.” Sweeney considers emerging-growth companies a big part of his practice and says he might have met the LevelUp purchasers through other avenues. But through this experience, the firm gained both an opportunity to partner with a client and a boost from their entrepreneurial verve. —S.F.W.

Full Profile and Interview Video »


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Photo by Callie Lipkin

The Point Man

Steven Berrent
Managing director, WilmerHale Discovery Solutions (New York City)
Age: 36
Cornell University Law School

He knows where litigation needs to go and how to make it happen, say those who know Berrent’s work. His background is in politics: He was information technology director for Al Gore’s 2000 presidential run. When that fell short, he went to Cornell and worked as a litigation associate. Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr hired him in 2008 from Davis Polk & Wardwell, where he was director of litigation services. Since some at WilmerHale remain dubious about technology, his role has assumed an element of geek evangelism. Sister Jennifer C. Berrent, a corporate partner at the firm, says, “He’s good at getting people to hear what he’s saying, as well as listening to them and not stepping on toes.” —S.F.W.

Full Profile and Interview Video »

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