As most readers know, one of the irregular—but always popular—kinds of columns we publish are in the form of interviews with people who pass our rigorous 10-point test are intrinsically interesting.
Recently I had the luck to get to know Herb Thomas, who immediately lured me in by saying he had once printed out much of the archival content of Adam Smith, Esq. for reading while traveling. In any event, Herb, based in Baltimore, gets to New York quite regularly and we had a chance to sit down together recently.
Q: For benefit of our audience, describe your background in a nutshell.
A: I came to the law late, after life as a salesman, teacher, and writer. I was down at UVA working on a doctorate in English literature when I had my damascene moment and moved across campus to the law school. I spent 10 years at Debevoise as a securities litigator, and saw my first novel published, and then left to become Executive Director of a not-for-profit operating inner city schools in Baltimore. When I returned to the law, it was on the management side as CAO of LeBoeuf Lamb. A whole new business model was emerging in law firms. I was actively involved in the merger with Dewey, ended up as Chief Business Development & Marketing Officer of the combined firm, and left in the summer of 2011 to co-found a company delivering mobile technology solutions to museums and cultural institutions.
Q: What has been the greatest change you’ve seen come to Law Land during your career?
A: A number of changes have been fairly dramatic – fee pressure, new career tracks, movement of lateral partners, emerging management models, the sheer size of so many firms. But if I had to pick one thing? The end of the boom years.
Q: What’s the greatest threat to law firms in the wake of the Great Reset?
A: The pace of change. It’s accelerating, yet not always immediately apparent. Month to month, business can look like it always has, with clients, matters, associate recruiting, training, billing, and everything else percolating along in familiar rhythms, even if numbers are down. But fee pressure, low cost providers, reduced leverage, and lateral hiring are moving in swift undercurrents. And many firms have been conditioned to look to the future for redemption. For decades they grew in response to constantly increasing demand. It was largely passive growth in the sense that it served to confirm and reinforce existing ways of doing business. There was no need to change. Firms looking for signs of a reawakening economy, for a return to growth, are losing valuable time. It’s more insidious than Mr. Micawber waiting for something to turn up. More like a captain looking through a spyglass at a horizon when the enemy is all around him in submarines.
Q: What’s their greatest weakness in meeting that threat?
A: Even firms that see the need to adapt may not be able to respond quickly enough. Law firms rightly have reputations for being immediately responsive to clients. Just about any firm can gear up with breathtaking speed to meet client emergencies. But the business model is weighed down with long-term commitments to compensation, recruiting, and career tracks. And beyond that are a whole lot of seemingly reasonable excuses for caution – fear of making mistakes, fear of revenue loss, or loss of prestige. George McClellan had a reputation for being slow to move and overthinking everything. Lincoln finally had to throw him out. This is more a time for Ulysses Grant and his ilk. Bulldog strategists who see the risks but attack aggressively anyway.
Q: And their greatest strength?