Corner Office

Learning The Business Basics

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Like a lot of law firms, Pittsburgh’s 125-year-old Reed Smith tended to let happenstance pick its leaders. Training and mentoring either happened or didn’t. Long range planning was wher­ev­er the law practice led.

The firm hired consultants now and then, but mostly everyone just stayed busy practicing law.

No more. Put this down as a likely watershed in the evolution of law-as-a-business. Reed Smith has adopted an intensive business school approach to developing lead­ers and staff, growing business and crafting long-range strategies, and it’s being applied to the managing partner down through the secretarial pool.

The fast growing firm is doing so with the help of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsyl­vania. The business school runs an executive education program for training business leaders and managers, and in recent years has developed custom programs tailored to particular companies and their challenges.

Reed Smith is the first law firm to try this. Reed Smith University, as the initiative is called, has five schools: lead­ership, business development, technology, professional support and law. There is a chancellor–litigator John F. Smith III in the Philadelphia office–and a dean for each school.

RSU does not have a football team, but it does have some hard chargers. Over the past four years, the firm, with its aggressive young leaders, has nearly doubled in size and is approaching 1,000 lawyers. The goal is as simple as 45-year-old managing partner Gregory Jordan’s take on today’s legal market: “I can foresee a time when there will be 30 or 40 major international law firms that are working with most of the major business organizations in the world and in most of the major markets. We think we can be one of those firms.”

At about the time Jordan took over leadership in 2001, the firm merged with London’s 60-lawyer Warner Cran­ston. On Jan. 1, 2002, it added New York City’s Parker Duryee Rosoff & Haft to its own New York office. And those moves made it easier to bring in Oakland, Calif.’s 220-lawyer Crosby, Heafey, Roach & May a little more than a year later.

Firm leaders quickly realized they could not become more competitive simply by getting bigger. They needed strong leadership, strategy and training. And they needed everyone–in 14 U.S. offices and two in the U.K. –to be on the same page.

Marathon Training Sessions

Rush first opened last fall with leadership training, when 30 Reed Smith leaders went to the Wharton School facility for five days straight, 8 a.m. through 9 p.m.

“We recognized as we grew and required more people to take leadership responsibilities that we hadn’t provided training,” says Michael B. Pollack of Philadelphia, the RSU dean for leadership. “We really had nothing before this for leadership development.”

Those intense marathon sessions began with the development of lists of issues confronting the firm and discussion of topics, such as what leaders really do. Business objectives and practice group concerns were also considered. At the end, each participant had to develop a 100-day leadership agenda, prioritizing strategic initiatives and setting time frames for their execution.

At the end of January, RSU’s four other schools began operations. Though Wharton faculty will help in developing those initiatives, the teaching will be done by mem­bers of the law firm. Courses will be taught in a variety of ways, using physical classrooms, an intranet and DVDs on laptops during trips.

“Most forward looking companies try to create continuous learning environments,” says Smith, who now works part time as chancellor. “In nuclear terms it’s like a breed­er reactor.”

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