Brad Robbins joined Sherman & Howard earlier this month. Robbins holds a law degree as well as an M.B.A. and working in a corporate environment at Sprint and in management at BigLaw firms King & Spalding and Baker & McKenzie. He brings the insight of a lawyer as well as the experience of having managed lawyers to the Denver-based firm. Law Week met with Robbins last week to discuss the firm’s growth strategies.
LAW WEEK: You’ve worked as a lawyer and have been on the business side of Sprint as well as at law firms. Can you give me the rundown of your resume?
ROBBINS: I was the trailing spouse going to Boston right after law school, and I practiced for several years in the Boston area with a small boutique firm, which catered exclusively to startups and entrepreneurs. This is in 1986, which was kind of a hot moment for this kind of activity. And this was the technology region. And what I discerned very quickly was that my clients were having a lot more fun than I was.
I didn’t I enjoyed the speed, the pace, but they were giving me assignments that might have to do with the distribution agreement or whatever, and I was curious about, well, ‘why would you structure that?’ ‘Why would you want to do that distribution agreement at all?’ And it turned out they actually didn’t have very good answers.
They were really smart about their software, but their business sense was actually — I thought — maybe not as developed as my own. So once my wife got her degree, I went back to business school, got an M.B.A. from the University of Chicago and was recruited off-campus to Sprint from Chicago and worked for them for a number of years in strategic planning and corporate development.
In that context … I was working as the inside client for King & Spalding which was doing the outside corporate work, and so for those transactions, Sprint was willing to spend almost any amount of money to get the deals done and to get them done right. This is where I learned how real top-notch professional services firms treat clients. And it’s luxurious as a client. It’s a lot more fun to be the client, I can now declare.
But after a number of years I got recruited from Sprint to go work with King & Spalding, which I did for a couple years on the management side. I got recruited from there to Baker & McKenzie, again on the management side.
We ended up relocating to Florida … and I went in as chief operating officer of a 50-person law firm in Sarasota, Florida, which was a very good fit for me. And for the firm. This is in 2009 during the depth of the recession, so we had nowhere to go but up.
I was able to, for the first time, be in a pure general management mode, not just strategy, not just planning, not just kind of on a staff management side, but kind of general management of operation. And that turned out to be what I really had been looking for.
I had a very good experience there and got contacted by a recruiter and that’s what led me to Sherman and Howard.
LAW WEEK: What was it about Sherman & Howard that drew you to the firm?
ROBBINS: The firm presented itself in a very particular way, and that’s a little bit hard to describe, but it was some combination of really, really smart people, which is not too surprising because it’s a successful law firm, but these guys were smart, and they were what I described as Midwestern warm. And that was very appealing. And then there was the bridge if you will, or this the spanning of multiple centuries that is very interesting to me.
How does a firm that actually existed in the 1800s position itself and thrive in the 21st century? And with all that history, all that brand equity, all that reputational capital, all that culture, which can either accelerate you in the next century or can be an anchor in one of the two prior centuries, that’s just an interesting challenge.
LAW WEEK: Not every firm has a COO, obviously, and a lot of that job is often done by practicing attorneys in a firm as well. Can you describe the boundaries of your role here?
ROBBINS: I can speculate a little bit.
The real objective is what’s motivating people. As soon as I get better and more acclimated to that here, I’ll get more comfortable. And then the firm will get to see how it’s comfortable with me, in terms of the decisions I make and the opinions I have and whether I figured out the right balance between understanding people and trying to be understood. And these are two very different things and you’ve got to get them in the right ratio, or it really doesn’t work.
What I’ve developed over the years, being a student of management, is a perspective on how to treat people, how to help people be their best, how to help them understand the broader picture, how to encourage and support their interest to grow and to learn. I think that’s part of the opportunity and part of what the firm saw in me.
Part of what I saw in the firm is this opportunity. It’s a little less of a technical COO role and more of a management or strategy or people COO. People take COO roles in all kinds of different ways. But for us, I think it’s going to be more oriented around growth in the people, in building the human capital as well as in attracting people to the firm through a variety of channels.
LAW WEEK: Is there anything as far as strategy or philosophy that you’re thinking about in terms of how you would pursue that?
ROBBINS: The firm is in the midst of implementing a strategy, and over the last few years, it’s done an incredibly good job of paying attention to a developing process to do better at some of the basics of running a firm, some of the basics around the finance and accounting and mechanical side and behind-the-scenes of making the firm run well.
The firm has just done a really good job of helping everybody understand the benefit of doing all that stuff and then going and doing it. And that’s the second piece is really where the hard work is.
There’s still some more work to do in that regard. But the real opportunity is looking forward from a strategic perspective and really helping the people we have in the building grow, learn and develop as individuals, and we are thinking about that across the range of people in the building.
The firm aspires to be a place where people want to learn and grow and feel a strong sense of belonging. And that’s the next frontier, if you will. We’ll keep pushing that as far as we can, but we know that the real opportunities are making people feel more fully engaged, helping them be more fully engaged, helping them to accomplish the things that they want to do personally and individually.
That’s the real focus from a strategy perspective, in terms of our human capital. We want to grow. We want to grow our people.
We want to grow in terms of the size and scale. We think Denver is well positioned as a market and we know there’s a lot of very good law firms in Denver. We are in that group of very good law firms in Denver.
LAW WEEK: Is there anything you think is going on now or that’s central now from the recruitment aspect compared to when you started working with other law firms?
ROBBINS: From an industry perspective, maybe. One of the things that’s changed is there’s, I think, less of a clear connection between the person who shows up right out of school and the expectation that they’re going to become a partner or equity member of the firm. That drive to do that.
When I was in law school, it was just sort of assumed. That’s your goal. That’s your objective. It’s not as clear to me today that that is still as broadly an objective that is as broadly held.
And if it’s true that it’s not, then the way we treat people, the way we incent them, what is the brass ring, that needs another look and it has implications for the kind of people you recruit, how you train, how you teach, how you develop the kind of collaborative environment you work in, the nature of it.
You have to start to appeal to people from a different perspective. It isn’t just, “you got to suck it up and bill those hours and you’ll get that brass ring” because it’s like, “well, what if I don’t really want the brass ring? I’m not going to put up with this other nonsense.”
What we’ve seen is people vote with their feet, and there’s a lot of people that are no longer in law firms that used to be. There’s not interest you know, for whatever reason, and that’s an industry issue.
LAW WEEK: Having gone to law school and being an attorney yourself and having worked in non-law firm environments as well, how does your experience help what you do?
ROBBINS: So I know the secret handshake. Lawyers tend to be very individual. Most of us did not go to law school to work as a cog in a big wheel, to be part of some greater organization that we would then be in middle management. That is generally not the kind of people who are attracted to law school.
We tend to be people who think for themselves and then law school reinforces that. Frankly, the historical role of lawyers is being the expert and, therefore, not being permitted to show any doubt or weakness. So they have to be the smartest person in the room or at least act like that, right? That’s what was rewarded, typically. So I think understanding that mentality or that general mode without over-generalizing, having some sense of what’s inherent in many lawyers and some of the shades of gray, through having lived in that work.
And I just feel like when I’m thinking about how to proceed with a particular initiative, I think that just comes to the fore. And this is a very tangible expression of that learning. And it didn’t come just from going to law school it was informed by that, but it’s actually practicing law having worked with in-house lawyers. You just sort of start to get a much clearer view of how people are likely to react to a particular idea or presentation. If we’re trying to persuade, how do we do that effectively? And that is a lot of what we do inside or outside a law firm.
— Tony Flesor