As with most law firms, San Francisco-based Hanson Bridgett LLP’s partners have long focused on delivering advice to clients rather than on non-billable activities to increase the firm’s market visibility. But in a severely contracting legal market, focusing on the work at hand and while neglecting the brand can be a recipe for disaster. CEO to CEO has helped Hanson Bridgett’s top management strike the right balance in recent few years and maintain its revenue – all at a time in which a number of competitors have closed shop or merged with other law firms.
Since the recession of 2008, the San Francisco legal services market has been a brutal one. That year, one prominent law firm (Heller Ehrman LLP, which had revenue of $500 million in 2006 and had been around since 1890) went bankrupt and was liquidated. Another (Thelen Reid Brown Raysman & Steiner) dissolved shortly afterwards. Several other San Francisco law firms merged with larger law firms.
Yet Hanson Bridgett, a $70 million firm with 350 employees in five Northern California offices, held its ground, maintaining its size despite a shrunken market.
“In the last few years, there has been significant consolidation in the legal industry,” says Andrew Giacomini, Hanson Bridgett’s managing partner. “The San Francisco Bay Area is one of the most competitive legal markets in the U.S. – both on the client side and on the talent side. That makes for very challenging economic conditions, which means people outside our firm need to know who we are. And that requires a very strong focus on building of brand in our market. For every law firm, it’s change or die.”
For Hanson Bridgett, that has meant elevating the game of its partners in developing new business, as well as becoming more programmatic about how the firm raises the visibility of its brand and grows the business. That’s why Andrew brought CEO to CEO in, starting in June 2009.
Rob Sher’s first assignment was working with Hanson Bridgett partners to improve the way they develop new business. “My goal was to have people in leadership positions in the firm take on more responsibility for our leadership initiatives,” says Andrew, who has led the firm since 2001. “That frees me up to focus on the things I needed to focus on, as well as help develop leaders in our organization.”
Rob worked with a number of Hanson Bridgett partners to create business development plans. After assessing their writing, public speaking and relationship-building skills, he helped them define a year-long plan with activities that would get them in front of new potential clients. The partners set their own deadlines, and Rob provided coaching to help them stay on track.
By November 2010, Andrew felt his firm needed additional help to increase brand presence in its Northern California legal markets. “I’ve been here my whole career, so I have blind spots,” he says. “Even if I’m innovative, I don’t have fresh eyes. In addition, I didn’t have the bandwidth to run this project and the other things I needed to do. I felt Rob had the right skill set.”
The first order of business was creating a growth strategy for the firm. In the first quarter of 2011, Rob worked with Andrew to develop the strategy and get the firm’s six other management committee members behind it. The next step was to define clear responsibilities for management committee in executing the strategy. (Hanson Bridgett’s partners vest the seven-person management committee with the authority to make most major decisions.) Previously, the management committee’s role was to come to meetings and make decisions on behalf of partners. “Occasionally and on an ad hoc basis, members of the management committee would take on projects,” Andrew says. The arrangement was too informal, the responsibilities too ill-defined.
Rob helped Andrew and the six other management committee members define the scope of their responsibilities. Rob then showed them how to operationalize those responsibilities: pairing up with someone from the next level down in the organization. Each “leadership pair” took on responsibilities for issues that previously had been on Andrew and his executive director’s plate. (The firm’s executive director is effectively the chief operating officer to Andrew’s chief executive role.)
For example, one leadership pair (a member of the management committee and the chief financial officer) focuses on financial issues: developing the budget, determining fees, approving write-offs and discussing collection issues. Another leadership pair is devoted to business development. This pair is the marketing director and the committee member in charge of business development initiatives that span the firm’s practice areas. In 2011, they launched a client feedback program and revamped the firm’s website, something Andrew used to be in charge of while also running the firm.
All this has helped Andrew get the top management team more fully integrated into the firm’s key initiatives. “The more leadership that can be developed in the firm, the more I can free myself to focus on external matters such as building a brand in the marketplace,” he says. “In five years, I want us to have a robust leadership team that allows the managing partner and the executive director to do other things.”
A critical task is differentiating Hanson Bridgett as a regional law firm. “We do not want to be part of a consolidation,” Andrew says. “Most law firms want to consolidate into big firms. We’re bucking that trend and trying to create a sweet spot right below that by focusing on the region here.”
Andrew views the impact of CEO to CEO as critical to the firm’s regional growth strategy. “We’re in a much better place than we had been during the recession,” he says. “Rob has been a catalyst who has made invaluable contributions to our company. He has been an architect for this big shift that needed to happen and someone who is helping us implement it.”
It hasn’t mattered to Andrew that Rob and CEO to CEO aren’t experts in law firm management. Andrew sees the firm’s expertise as in teaching CEOs of any professional firm how to be better leaders of their business. “Dealing with lawyers is a pain in the ass,” says Andrew. “Rob is very patient but persistent. Some people here took to Rob’s coaching and others resisted. He didn’t take it personally. He understood it might happen, and we all persevered through it.
“We’re in a much, much better place because of it,” Andrew explains. “Now we’re taking what we learned from Rob and building on it ourselves." Andrew says it is just one of several “dangerous missions” he sees assigning to Rob and CEO to CEO.
More recently, Andrew asked Rob to tackle the thorny issue of a major change in the job duties of section leaders (business unit leaders). A majority of their compensation come from their own personal business development results and from their own billable hours. The firm’s culture (as is true in many law firms) gave high respect to high individual producers. The firm needed more leadership hours, yet compensation and expectations for those hours was unclear. The result was a lesser emphasis on leadership, and that was impacting the firm’s growth. With Rob’s coaching, two Hanson Bridgett practice leaders in early 2012 crafted a document with a vision of the role, duties and compensation of section leaders that was met with excitement and interest. Implementation plans are being detailed, and discussions with the partner compensation committee have begun. One of the section leaders is executing on the vision as a pilot in 2012.
“I feel like I’ve got this right-hand person I can call on to come in and take on these dangerous missions,” Andrew says about Rob. “That’s really a great asset.”