Mathieu Shapiro Quoted in The Mid-Market Report

November 18, 2019

Obermayer manager partner Mathieu Shapiro was quoted in an article by Legal Intelligencer reporter Zack Needles, “How Midsize Firms Can Soften the Blow of Lateral Departures,” published in The Mid-Market Report. Mathieu explains how organizational culture, strong client relationships, and transparency can minimize the impact of lateral departures.

The original article can be accessed here.


How Midsize Firms Can Soften the Blow of Lateral Departures

By Zack Needles

Being as honest and transparent as possible with their firms and with the public is Rule No. 2 for law firm leaders communicating lateral departures.

Rule No. 1? Build a culture and a business model that make it so being honest and transparent is not a terrifying prospect.

One thing is certain, especially at a midsize firm: trying to avoid the issue will only lead to bigger problems.

“What really drives people’s negative emotions is gossip,” said John Hellerman, founder of Hellerman Communications in Washington, D.C. “The way you dissipate that is to tell the truth.”

The catch is that the truth has to be one you’re comfortable discussing in some detail.

“It isn’t just a matter of saying, ‘Hey, Joe left but we’re going to be OK,’” said Terry Isner, a veteran brand consultant at Jaffe in Delaware. “It has to be, ‘We spoke to the client and they’re not going to leave’ or ‘We have worked hard to make sure that we have a system here so that we’re prepared [for departures].’”

The other catch is that you actually have to have a system.

And that system, Isner said, needs to involve a succession plan, which many law firms are still ignoring at their peril.

“We’re still stuck in this structure where client and lawyer go together—that’s the relationship—it’s not client and law firm,” Isner said, but added, “What we’re recognizing is that what’s working are these diverse, generational client teams that are showing clients, ‘If I lose one person from the team, I’m still getting what I expect from the firm.’”

Mathieu Shapiro, managing partner of Philadelphia-based Obermayer Rebmann Maxwell & Hippel, said the goal of his firm is to foster relationships with its clients that make them feel like “part of the family,” which is admittedly difficult at a time when books of business have become increasingly portable.

“We hope and strive to make sure those relationships [with our clients] are bigger than any one lawyer here,” said Shapiro adding that while cross-selling services to clients is part of that, it’s more than merely transactional. “It’s about actually building relationships between clients and multiple attorneys here.”

Shapiro, whose own practice often deals with litigation over messy law firm lateral departures, said he’s witnessed plenty of firms who, “in their personal vendettas against the person leaving, forget that the client comes first.”

“There are firms that will put things in their agreements that are so onerous on the departing lawyer, that they, in essence, deprive the client of their choice of lawyer,” he said.

Shapiro said he’s also heard of firms trying desperately to change departing lawyers’ minds about leaving.

“We don’t do that,” he said, adding, “We want people here who want to be here.”

But that’s not to say that the loss of an attorney or group of attorneys can’t be an opportunity for self-reflection and even a bit of soul searching.

When there is a departure, Shapiro said, “we figure out why the person is leaving—is it based on something we can do something about? Quite frankly, most times it isn’t…But on the rare occasions that we do think it is related to us, we ask ourselves, ‘Is it something that’s fixable, buildable or changeable?’”

Being able to admit that the firm has learned something from a lateral departure or has identified a deficiency that it intends to correct is a sign of empathy and humanity, which are increasingly important traits in a law firm leader—and ones that will go a long way toward keeping other lawyers from following their colleagues out the door, Isner said.

“It’s the ability to say, ‘This [departure] has opened our eyes to an opportunity to make changes at our firm…,’” Isner said. “The old PR idea was to say nothing. Now, you want to get ahead of it.”

Even the healthiest firms experience departures that sting, whether it’s from a financial standpoint, a public relations standpoint or both. It’s when those happen that it’s critical for law firm leaders to be able to describe, in detail, to their firms and the public how their organizations will persevere, Isner and Hellerman said.

“This is about managers actually being managers and leaders actually leading,” Isner said. “That’s the shift we’re seeing here.”

After a high-profile departure, he continued, the remaining attorneys and staff are looking to their leadership and saying, “‘I hear you telling me I’m OK, but show me I’m OK.’ That’s exactly what anybody should expect from their management.”

But the ability to effectively lead in that way requires laying significant groundwork well before anyone actually leaves the firm. It involves building a diversified practice, a strong brand and a clearly defined ethos.

It’s what Hellerman refers to as building “reputational capital”: “At some point before this critical thing happened where you needed everyone to trust you, you need to have demonstrated why you’re trustworthy.”

The fatal mistakes too many law firm leaders make, according to Isner, are failing to prepare for the inevitability that attorneys will eventually leave and refusing to embrace the changes that occur when they do.

“I would start every conversation with a managing partner by saying, ‘Dude, change is going to happen on your watch, so you can be caught with your pants down or not. That’s your choice.’”


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