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The ATL Interrogatories: 10 Questions with Don Lents of Bryan Cave

Ed. note: Welcome to the latest installment of The ATL Interrogatories, a recurring feature that gives notable law firm partners an opportunity to share insights and experiences about the legal profession and careers in law, as well as information about their firms and themselves.

Don Lents is chair of Bryan Cave LLP. His practice focuses on M&A, corporate governance, and securities law, with particular emphasis upon multinational and domestic mergers. He has been an adjunct professor at the Washington University Law School. He received both his undergraduate and law degrees from Harvard.

1. What is the greatest challenge to the legal industry over the next 5 years?

To use the terminology of our clients and the business world, our profession is in the throes of adapting to the transition from being a “growth industry” to a “mature industry.” Strategies and management approaches are necessarily different when dealing with flat demand, rather than riding a steady wave of growth — and the transition from one to the other requires awareness of and adjustment to the change. The implications include the need for greater recognition of the differences between firms in their business models, and better definition of their “value proposition.” Our clients have long understood the need to be constantly thinking about how they conduct their business with some combination of “better, faster, cheaper.” We need to do the same (although I’d rather refer to the last element as “better value” rather than just “cheaper”). For a profession trained to identify what was decided in the past and how things were done previously in order to identify the answers for today (which is, after all, the point of precedent and the principle of stare decisis), that kind of receptivity to experimentation and innovation doesn’t always come easily.

I can’t leave this question, however, without noting that even though my answer employs terminology more common to those who opted to pursue an MBA rather than a JD, I do think there is value in continuing to refer to what we do as a profession, not just an industry. I was pleased to see your questions, other than this one, do so.

2. What has been the biggest positive change to the legal profession since the start of your career?

Globalization. As our clients’ businesses have become more global, we too have extended our reach and our resources in order to be able to continue to meet their changing needs. That has both required and given us better opportunities to know the world, our place in it, and the wonderful variety of cultures and attributes we live in. That particularly resonates with me since I started my career by spending a year abroad (in London, Johannesburg, Sydney and Auckland) on a fellowship to gain a practical exposure to how legal practice can work in systems that have some form of a formal division between trial lawyers and others, and then as a newly minted partner I was asked to move to London to open a European office for Bryan Cave (and also spend significant time in the Middle East). Those were unusual — virtually unique — opportunities at the time, but they were fascinating and I believe they contributed meaningfully to both my personal and professional growth. Today, there are cross border aspects to much of what we do, and lawyers have the opportunity to practice across countries and cultures on a regular basis.

3. What has been the biggest negative change to the legal profession since the start of your career?

While being constantly “connected” has its positive attributes, it has accelerated the pace at which we need to respond in ways that make it much harder to find time for careful, measured thought. In fact, one of the benefits of being the chair of a firm with offices across the U.S., Europe and Asia is that I have lots of time on airplanes, and that has become my best source of opportunities for reflection — at least unless the move to allow not just internet access but cell phone calls while in-flight (a terrible idea, in my view) gains more traction.

4. What is the greatest satisfaction of practicing law?

Counseling clients and helping them accomplish their goals — particularly in circumstances where they don’t necessarily see a path to doing so.

5. What is the greatest frustration of practicing law?

The time pressures which arise out of the pace at which clients, opposing counsel and others require a response when we are expected to be connected on essentially a 24/7 basis. From time to time, I remember with pleasure (and no doubt the rose-tinted glasses of hindsight) going off on vacation or even a long weekend without having to check for texts, e-mails or voice mails.

6. What is your firm’s greatest strength?

I am a fan of Jim Collins — in his book Good to Great (affiliate link), he suggests that if an organization wants to excel, it needs to be able to answer three questions: what are you passionate about, at what do you think you can be among the best in the world, and what drives your economic engine? He illustrates that with three interlocking circles, to suggest that where the answers overlap is the place where you should direct your strategy and concentrate your efforts. For us, the answers revolve around a commitment to building strong and enduring relationships, both externally and internally. Most of our principal client relationships date back decades, many since the inception of the client’s business and some for more than 100 years. In the words of our core values statement, that reflects a passionate, long-term commitment to our clients.

Of course, we take great satisfaction in our ability to handle transforming transactions or bet the company litigation, and we do our fair share of that kind of work, But what really drives our economic engine, and what allows us to be the kind of trusted counselors to, advocates for — and partners of — our clients on a daily basis, something that we are passionate about, is embracing (not just accommodating) the mainstream legal needs of our clients which are essential to their success. That has guided our strategy and led to our decision to build a platform that provides both depth and reach across multiple practices and geographic locations.

To make effective use of that platform requires operating as “One Firm” — and to reinforce that we have for many years included in our core values the admonition that we must each treat our colleagues as we do our best clients. That statement — which one of my partners refers to as the “Bryan Cave golden rule” — has great power because it doesn’t just define the result we are seeking (such as collaboration), but is actionable — it describes the behavior we want in order to accomplish that result. It not only helps us create the kind of environment in which we want to work, but also to draw more effectively on resources across the firm as we strive to meet our clients’ needs.

7. What is the single most important personal characteristic for a successful lawyer in your field?

Smarts — the ability to grasp a situation, understand it, and come up with a creative solution for meeting the client’s needs. But I can’t leave the answer at just one characteristic, as the smarts have to be inextricably joined with integrity.

8. What is your favorite legally themed film or television show?

While this is going to date me, since it started in 1986 before some of your readers were even born, I’d have to say the television show LA Law. While McKenzie, Brackman, Chaney & Kuzak didn’t look that much like my firm (or any other that I was familiar with), it was often times great fun. And, it coupled entertainment with the willingness to deal with many hot button issues of the time (too many of which, sadly, remain issues today).

9. What is your favorite legally themed book (fiction or non-fiction)?

Gideon’s Trumpet (affiliate link), by Anthony Lewis. The book, which tells the story behind Gideon v. Wainwright, was given to me by a close family friend when I was in high school. The description of Clarence Earl Gideon’s successful effort to establish the right to counsel in state court criminal proceedings, initiated by a hand written (in pencil) letter he wrote to the U.S. Supreme Court from jail following his conviction, helped fuel my interest in the law.

10. What would you have been if you weren’t a lawyer?

I’d like to say something like a professional golfer on the PGA Tour, but anyone who has seen me play can tell you how ridiculous an idea that is.