An interview with Advisory Board member Dan McMahon of Wilson Elser Moskowitz Edelman & Dicker.
What does a typical day look like for you?
I don’t have typical days. Wilson Elser is a national law firm with 34 offices. So every day is different, and I’m often on the road visiting our various offices or clients. When I’m in my home office in Chicago, I spend a good deal of time communicating with our partners, attorneys, administrative professionals, or with the clients. Each day has a new agenda designed to move the firm forward.
Can you talk about the evolution of ALIGN and why it was established?
ALIGN is the name and brand identity we gave our approach to legal project management. From the very beginning, our firm has looked to drive exceptional client service and find the most efficient, economical resolutions for our clients’ matters. That’s who we are, and it’s embedded in our culture and identity. Now that legal project management is an industry best practice, we’ve taken the concepts that have always served us well and refined them further, formalizing them as ALIGN.
All of our attorneys—from first-year associates to veteran partners—participate in ALIGN training to ensure consistency across practices and geographies. We provide various levels of training to achieve certification internally, which enables us to employ best practices across the firm and “align” ourselves with our clients’ interests and how they want their cases handled. ALIGN resonates with the clients and presents them with a compelling value proposition.
Wilson Elser is a member of Legalign Global, an alliance of four firms focusing on the insurance market. What can you tell us about Legalign Global and Wilson Elser’s role related to it?
Legalign Global allows us to respond more effectively to the trend in globalization that has permeated our economy. It certainly has impacted the insurance industry and many segments of the legal profession. As our clients’ legal issues are becoming global in nature—driven by technology and the speed with which communication occurs—it was important for us to make sure that we are able to present the right solutions.
Wilson Elser is one of the four founding member firms of Legalign Global. While a global alliance was an attractive option, we wanted and needed to preserve our identity as a U.S. law firm. We’ve had loose working relationships with the other Legalign Global member firms in the past through our common clients and our positions in the insurance market. It got us talking to these other firms about ways to provide global solutions for common clients and potential new clients. In the course of those conversations, it became clear that all four firms are values-based organizations, heavily committed to excellence in the delivery of legal services. All are smart in their approach to the business of law. So these common elements and shared values opened the door to ways that we could work together to help our clients.
At the same time, each of the firms maintains its own identity as best-in-region in their respective niches. Working within Legalign Global, we can provide the best of both worlds: best-in-region service in the United States extended to accommodate international clients and U.S. clients that do business internationally.
The other firms are DAC Beachcroft, which is a UK-based firm that practices across the United Kingdom, Ireland, and Spain and has significant reach in other regions, including Latin America and Asia Pacific; BLD Bach Langheid Dallmayr, which is the top insurance-focused law firm in Germany and has close associations throughout Europe; and Wotton + Kearney, which operates in the Asia Pacific region with a focus on Australasia. Legalign Global allows us not only to provide that additional level of service to our common clients but also to share ideas on how we do business and best practices to constantly improve ourselves.
What are your thoughts on the new importance of alternative fee agreements?
Wilson Elser has been providing alternative fee arrangements, or AFAs, to clients since the firm was founded 40 years ago. There is, as you say, a new emphasis as clients are looking for AFAs and law firms are welcoming that as a way to be more creative and align themselves more closely with their clients.
For AFAs to work, they have to be true partnering arrangements with the clients, focused on achieving a mutually beneficial end to each assignment and developing a long-term relationship. When that happens, it can be successful; it makes a lot of sense. At the same time, the presumptive arrangement in a client relationship continues to be the billable hour, which still predominates. We need to be efficient and mindful that we’re delivering value with that basic core relationship and receptive to different arrangements for different types of cases.
How does diversity and inclusion factor into your business model?
It’s very important. We recognize that we operate better and provide greater value to our clients when we’re open to different perspectives and different views. Our clients are diverse and are responding to issues and problems that stem from diversity, and our job is to find the most effective solution. A philosophy and approach of inclusiveness is critical to allowing broader thought processes that lead to better solutions. It certainly is important from our clients’ perspective, and that makes it important to us.
Our Diversity and Inclusion Committee is a broad group chaired by Angela Russell, who is a member of the firm’s Executive Committee and the regional managing partner of our Baltimore office—and a top-notch trial attorney. Our Executive Committee also includes Carolyn O’Connor, regional managing partner of our New Jersey office, who heads our WAVE initiative, which stands for Women Attorneys Valued and Empowered, under the Diversity and Inclusion Committee. Another member of senior leadership, Ricki Roer, works closely with me in the chairman’s office. She’s the national chair of our employment and labor practice and works with attorneys at the forefront of issues relating to minorities and women. So it is something we’re invested in, and we’ve tapped into the talent of senior leadership to advance these initiatives.
Among our many firm-wide initiatives is our annual Diversity and Inclusion Day where, for the past four years, we’ve brought in an expert in the field to address our entire law firm—attorneys and staff—via video teleconference. Angela Russell and I also take part in the presentation, after which people in their local offices continue the discussion through related activities over a meal. It’s been a meaningful event that not only advances these important issues but also unifies the entire firm.
Another of our initiatives, and one that extends beyond our firm, is a supplier diversity program. Just as our clients are seeking diverse law firms, Wilson Elser is looking for vendors with a similar commitment to diversity and inclusion by identifying those that are minority- or women-owned and making sure that we provide ample opportunity for them to work with us. It’s important to us as a firm, and we’re proud of our involvement and accomplishments in that area.
Outside the firm, we belong to and support organizations such as the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association, the South American Bar Association, the Latin American Bar Association, the Hispanic National Bar Association, the Minority Corporate Counsel Association, the National Association of Women Lawyers, and the National LGBT Bar Association.
What are the pros and cons of giant firms versus boutiques?
Well, a definite pro to being a large firm goes back to what we discussed earlier regarding the globalization and consolidation of insurance services and, by association, the legal profession. A significant percentage of work is insurance-based, but we also have a great deal of non-insurance, commercial business. So, certainly, being a large firm presents tremendous opportunities that are closely aligned with the economy in general and with our corporate clients specifically. Our national footprint, breadth of knowledge, and depth of experience in each core practice area provides that sort of one-stop solution for clients looking to drive efficiencies and economies of scale.
We’re keeping pace with our clients by growing our talent and growing our firm. Over the past 10 years or so, we’ve had several successful small law firms and boutique firms join Wilson Elser to better serve their clients through a national platform and on-the-ground talent. Most recently, Tropio & Morland in Los Angeles came on board. Lampf Lipkind Prupis & Petigrow, which has a national reputation, has been a fantastic addition for us, not only adding high-quality lawyers to our New Jersey office and the firm but also bringing practice areas and skill sets in taxation and trusts and estates that we did not have previously. Hake Law in San Francisco, Leib & Katt in Milwaukee, and Stewart Stimmel in Louisville and Dallas all recognized they were better served by joining Wilson Elser.
We’ve benefited by adding these talented lawyers with new service offerings for our clients, and in some instances, introducing us to new clients where we can leverage those relationships on a national level and better serve our existing client base. So from our perspective, being a “giant” firm is heavily weighted on the pros side.
Having said all that, I personally think there’s always going to be room in the legal profession in certain circumstances for the boutique law firms that fill special needs for a specific client base. I think it’s tougher for firms in the middle; you almost have to choose one or the other. You either intentionally choose to be small or you need to move to a bigger platform, such as the one Wilson Elser can provide. Those that choose the middle ground will feel pressure and likely be squeezed out of the market.
What do you consider to be the most pressing legal issue in your practice currently?
Rather than a discrete type of claim or lawsuit or potential risk exposure for clients, I think the move toward globalization is most pressing—the phenomena that so many types of issues can quickly morph into global issues. Again, that’s being driven by technology, communication, and consolidation; all those general market forces that are converging.
A good example of that is being positioned to deal with what I think is the most significant issue in the legal world: cyber-exposure. Data breach exposures are increasing and quickly can become national or global exposures for clients. So, again, our national footprint and affiliation with Legalign Global gives us the ability to step up when issues cross national boundaries.
How do you think the industry will change over the next 20 years?
We’ve seen extraordinary and dramatic changes over the past 10 years, and we’re not going back. There’s been a paradigm shift affecting the legal profession since 2008, and I don’t see this trend losing momentum in the near future. Again, this tracks with what’s going on in the economy overall. There are developments every day, largely driven by technological advances, where our economy is changing and new issues arise; entire industries are being rendered obsolete overnight.
We have certain core values that will never change: our commitment to great legal work and having top lawyers deliver it; our commitment to client service, how we’re focused on understanding our clients’ businesses, and delivering results that are consistent with their business goals; and always staying focused on that service proposition in the value relationship. Equally important is our core value of commitment to each other as colleagues.
To be true to those core values, we have to ensure that the way we do business leverages technological advancements to better serve our clients, stay on the cutting edge of developments in the law, and anticipate not only the immediate but also the future legal issues our clients will face. We need to structure our business to take advantage of these changes for the long-term stability of the firm. Our lawyers have an effective platform from which to work for the rest of their careers, and we’re preparing the next generation of lawyers to thrive within an even better platform. All of these things are critically important to us.
So as I see it, the changes within the legal profession will be significant and profound. Our challenge as a law firm is not only to see these as hurdles to overcome—we certainly need to do that—but also to be effective in how we recognize the tremendous opportunities presented to us. Being able to identify those opportunities when faced with a change in the industries that we serve has been a hallmark of Wilson Elser historically, and that certainly will continue to be a guiding principle for us in the future. We’re confident and optimistic about what the future holds for our law firm.