Be Yourself for a Change

We took a look last month at the cautionary tale of Dewey & LeBoeuf, a New York City law firm that filed for bankruptcy in 2012 after a last ditch attempt to restructure. Dewey’s leadership faced some difficult realities during that process, but it was too late for the firm to get its house in order. Had the firm engaged in some sober truth testing a few months earlier, there might have been time to turn things around.

Today, Washington D.C.’s Dickstein Shapiro is taking that lesson to heart, working proactively to avoid the traps that have forced other firms into mergers and bankruptcies. According to a profile in The Washington Post, Dickstein is getting ahead of its troubles with changes like giving more autonomy to its practice groups, offering more flexible fee structures and hiring the firm’s first-ever chief operating officer.

While not dire, the circumstances at Dickstein make clear why it’s time for a few changes. Profits plummeted 35 percent in 2013, and a steady stream of departures left the firm with about 225 attorneys — 40 percent fewer than were at Dickstein just five years ago. But Dickstein chairman Jim Kelly says the new way of doing business will stabilize the firm and set it up for long-term success.

“We’re trying to operate our business more like our clients do,” Kelly said. “There are a number of business attributes we’re now trying to bring to the legal side that are different from how a lot of other firms do it, and how our firm did it in the past.”

One critical difference in Dickstein’s approach is a renewed dedication to capturing the firm’s core values and strengths, which is the first step for those who wish to practice Great Law. The new strategy is to specialize in the services in which Dickstein has the greatest experience and credibility; its core business is insurance disputes, with niche footholds in antitrust litigation, intellectual property and government investigations.

“We aren’t going to be everything to everyone,” Kelly said. “We recognize that different practices have different competitive and strategic profiles, and we permit each of those practice groups to have some flexibility in how they’re going to deliver value to their clients, which is a significant departure from how law firms have been historically managed.”

Kelly also noted that staying true to Dickstein’s core means taking certain risks that many other firms are unwilling to take. From the very beginning, Dickstein made a point of accepting contingency work, which means dedicating resources to efforts that could end up generating zero revenue. As much as 12 percent of Dickstein’s billable hours go into contingency work every year.

“Contingent cases are part of our DNA,” Kelly said. “It’s an important part of who we are.”

When the leaders of a firm discuss who they want to be, they can easily get lost in the endless possibilities. But when they humbly and honestly seek to identify and understand who they truly are, core values become clear, and Great Law becomes possible.