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The ATL Interrogatories: 10 Questions with Richard Rosenbaum from Greenberg Traurig

Ed. note: This is the latest installment of The ATL Interrogatories, brought to you by Lateral Link. This recurring feature will give notable law firm partners an opportunity to share insights and experiences about the legal profession and careers in law, as well as about their firms and themselves.

Richard A. Rosenbaum is the Chief Executive Officer of Greenberg Traurig. Richard joined the firm in 1985 as its 90th lawyer, and just as he has been a leader in its spectacular growth across the Americas, Asia, Europe and the Middle East, navigating the changing times in which we live, he has been fiercely devoted to serving the firm’s clients, lawyers and staff, and the communities in which they live and work, for the past 28 years. You can read his full bio here.

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

Traditional responses to a new world will simply not work. This is a time of great challenge but also huge opportunity. Delivering top-tier quality in defined practices for which your firm is branded while using a one-firm, one-culture platform of diverse cost centers to creatively deliver great value to clients and reasonable compensation to lawyers is the place to focus. For us, we have the culture, assets and platform, so the challenge is to nimbly execute. For many others, it will take a major overhaul or massive change at a time when neither will be easy. The U.S. will continue to be the number one legal market, and the middle market is growing and healthy, so strength, quality and breadth here is essential–we have those, no need to build them. You also need disciplined centers of excellence in certain key global locations which make sense for your firm, we are on our way there; but being yet another firm that is mediocre in every country worldwide adds no value to anyone–we never accumulated that baggage. And following the pack into high-priced, culture- and quality-killing mergers or vereins, raising an inordinate level of capital, etc., all to keep the same old outdated business model going, is not the answer and will not add value to clients or lawyers. As you can tell, we feel well positioned, but the challenge remains to come together and get it done.

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

The biggest positive change is that clients are now much more focused on quality and value and more open to merit-based hiring decisions than they ever were. The firm’s pedigree, or that of individual lawyers, is less important than what you bring to the table in terms of substance, quality and the ability to consistently solve the client’s problems in a businesslike manner for a fair price. This has been the change that has allowed a firm like Greenberg Traurig to succeed. It is also the change that has allowed a more diverse range of individuals an opportunity to succeed than it did at the start of my career. Our firm practiced diversity hiring before anyone used that term or it was “politically correct.” Whether we are talking about our former CEO and current co-chairman, Cesar Alvarez, who happens to be a Cuban immigrant, or our many prominent women, African-Americans, Asians, and our large LGBT contingent, success here and I believe in the legal profession today, is about merit, performance and serving clients. That is a fabulous change.

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

The biggest negative change is the move from a focus on long-term values, culture and professionalism to short-term profits. There are a variety of reasons for this. This has caused a breakdown in happiness at firms, a huge increase in lateral movement and other challenges. The good news is that I sense a movement back in the other direction. Many of us in management and the younger generations at our firm have been spending a lot of time together to determine ways to get our culture stronger than ever. There is a tendency for culture to slip, or be “put on hold,” during difficult times, if people are honest about it. That needs to be set straight and made a top priority not only at our firm, but across the industry.

4. What is the greatest satisfaction of practicing law?

My greatest satisfaction comes from the long-term relationships that I have developed with clients and the lawyers in our firm, many of whom have built their lives here. Knowing that I have played a small role in helping a number of lawyers and staff develop in their careers and find success in their lives, and that so many families have benefited over the years from the success of our firm, is what keeps me going every day. I know all those individual relationships are what I will remember at the end of my career, not the numbers; those are what have been most deeply rewarding to me on a personal level.

5. What is the greatest frustration of practicing law?

It’s frustrating to see that many individuals do not yet believe that the legal profession has changed permanently or are paralyzed by the changes they see and therefore do not take responsibility for their careers. I also get frustrated by those who spend all their time talking about what they will do instead of doing it. Today’s landscape encourages us to innovate, work collaboratively and elevate the firm. Our firm is financially stable, culturally strong, well-positioned in terms of our geography and practices and open to new ways of thinking – in today’s new world, that sets us apart, and we have no time to waste on anything but executing with a sense of urgency.

6. What is your firm’s greatest strength?

While we have many strengths, Greenberg Traurig’s greatest strength is its culture and values. I recognized early in my career that the firm’s emphasis on trust, respect, integrity, adaptation to change, empowerment of the individual, intense collaboration and merit pay, positioned it for lasting success. Related to this is the fact that our impressive growth has been achieved organically, not by mergers or vereins, to avoid diluting or fracturing our culture. We will continue to work hard to ensure that we always remain one firm with one culture. I would add that we have therefore successfully avoided picking up much of the baggage that would now have been obstacles to achieving the success now open to us.

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

There are many smart, competent and hardworking lawyers in this world and I have met many of them. But to me, what sets apart those who are most likely to achieve lasting success are their integrity and character. These are first and foremost personal traits. But at Greenberg Traurig, we have also institutionalized them through our Commitment to Excellence (CTE) program, which functions alongside a unique auditing system to ensure that the goals of the CTE program are being met.

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

The Godfather (affiliate link).

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

The Nine (affiliate link).

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

I have no doubt that I would own and run my own business. I was an entrepreneur before becoming a lawyer and attended law school in the evenings while working. This experience shaped my thinking, made me understand that you could achieve anything you set your mind to if you were willing to work harder than anyone else to do it, and helped develop my business-minded approach to practicing law and managing Greenberg Traurig.

Lateral Link’s recruiters are on pace to place hundreds of attorneys throughout the world this year. We are currently involved in over three dozen active partner searches including opening the office of an Am Law 50 firm in a new location, the merger of an Am Law 10 firm with a foreign firm, finding practice chairs for several Am Law10 firms, and searches for groups of partners in at least ten different cities, including Atlanta, Silicon Valley, Los Angeles, New York, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Dallas, Denver, and Chicago, just to name a few. We are currently working with partner candidates with $500k to $35M in portable business. For more information, please call Michael Allen, Managing Principal at Lateral Link.