Jon Van Gorp, 52, Mayer Brown, Chicago and New York
Job title: Chairman.
Practice area: Finance.
Law school and year of graduation: SMU Dedman School of Law, 1994.
How long were you at the firm and what was your journey to your legal career? Mayer Brown has been my professional home for the past 24 years. I was elected chairman of the firm in 2021. Prior to joining the firm in 1997, I was an associate for three years at Thompson & Knight (now Holland & Knight) in Dallas, Texas. I am the first lawyer in my family. My parents were both teachers. My extended family are mostly farmers and general contractors. I spent many summers before law school working for the construction side of the family. In doing so, I learned the value of hard work, the importance of project management, and the joy that comes from building things.
What do you think was the deciding factor for the firm in making you chairman? I have a reputation as a builder and a connector; maybe it’s my construction background. I’ve successfully connected partners to each other and to clients. Over the years at Mayer Brown, I enjoyed building a practice, a team, and several institutional client relationships. I’ve even connected clients to each other. While on the management committee, I executed several practice and office growth projects. The partnership board believed it was necessary and important for the next leader of the firm to have these qualities to achieve the growth goals set forth in our strategic plan.
After being here for almost my entire career, I have a deep understanding of and appreciation for Mayer Brown’s culture. Its core values are ingrained in me—from the importance of contributing to the communities in which we live to valuing our people and client service. I am a culture carrier. This is one of the most important aspects, if not the most important aspect, of my role.
Describe how you feel about your career now that you’ve made chairman: I feel really fortunate to have this job because it’s new and interesting every day. I enjoy the variety and the challenges.
I also feel extremely honored to have a mandate from my partners to lead our firm. I would not be where I am today without tremendous mentors at the firm and teams around me. Being chair allows me to give back to the firm and my partners who supported me as I developed my practice and took on various management roles.
It’s a great time to be leading Mayer Brown. We have experienced a steady increase in profitability over the last eight years, and exciting initiatives are taking place—from partnering with clients on innovative technology projects to diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives. The future could not be brighter for Mayer Brown.
What advice would you give to someone who has the goal of rising to an executive leadership position?
- Lead by example. Listen. Engage. Tackle difficult tasks and keep working until they are complete. Put simply, be persistent.
- Focus always on developing the next generation of leaders, even when it means sharing the limelight. This is extremely important in a mature business like ours that is more than 100 years old. I am the steward of an organization built over several generations. My goal is to leave the firm in a better place than when I took over as its leader, and to develop a leader to take my role that will do a better job than me.
- Build trust and confidence in every person that you manage. Value and appreciate every person in the organization, whatever role they are in. People aren’t perfect, leaders aren’t perfect, but for the most part we’re all trying our best. Always assume good intentions until proven otherwise. Be introspective. Understand that mistakes and failures are inevitable, and your reaction as a leader is important. What are the takeaways and opportunities for improvement? Are there lessons that you can provide from your own mistakes?
- Don’t overlook the value of a simple “thank you” at work or in your everyday life. An unexpected “thank you,” with no agenda other than genuine appreciation, can make someone’s day. Be a servant leader. End every discussion with a simple request: “Is there anything else that I can do to be helpful?”
- Finally, don’t be afraid to try new things. Being a good leader is more than just protecting the status quo. For example, earlier this year I created an internal podcast called “Tools of the Trade,” which provides career development ideas and advice for lawyers and business services staff.
What is the biggest challenge facing leaders today? The pandemic has tested the traditional law firm model. It has tested the way that law firms develop talent, which is largely based on the apprenticeship model. It has tested the way law firms create, grow and retain client relationships, often without in-person meetings and connections. But most of all, it has changed the way we work and deliver client service. While we all hope the pandemic ends soon, remote work is here to stay. Adapting the traditional law firm model to this new way of working is the biggest challenge law firm leaders face today.
An all-in-the-office or all-remote way of working is much simpler than the hybrid model of working in the office part of the time and remotely the other part of the time. Developing lawyers and developing client relationships when some lawyers and some clients are in the office and some are working remotely will require new systems and approaches. Law firm leaders will need to be open-minded to new ways of doing things and embrace the use of technology to bridge the gaps. Many law firm leaders believe that hybrid work will lead to higher productivity and a better work-life balance, making both lawyers and clients happier. That may well be the end result; it will just take some work to get there.
Knowing what you know now what would you tell your younger self? Intellectual curiosity is essential. Learn to play an instrument! Learn a different language! Whether for career advancement or simply out of curiosity, we all benefit by tapping into that impulse to explore what may seem nonessential, despite our busy lives. Intellectual curiosity is something my parents instilled in me early on. I just wish I would have more closely followed their advice. It’s an important point to be reminded of regularly. It’s a frequent theme with my own children.
Also, as the French philosopher Voltaire is most commonly credited with saying, “Perfect is the enemy of good.” It’s OK to be less than perfect. This may sound trite to some, but it remains true. Always strive for perfection, but in many cases only through failure can you grow. I wish I would have taken more risks when I was younger, even though that would have likely meant more failures. As my parents used to tell me when I was a young skier, if you are not falling you are not getting any better!
Who had the greatest influence in your career that helped propel you to chairman? I’m lucky to have several mentors and I wish I had enough space to mention all of them. I think my dad, who is no longer living, probably had the biggest impact on my decision to become a lawyer and to push forward in my career. He taught me not to be afraid of challenges, whatever they are, and to have the self-confidence to succeed. My dad was a low-income, first-generation college student. His parents only completed the 6th grade before going to work full time on their family farms. After completing college he went on to achieve several advanced degrees and to have a very successful career as a science teacher. He was unafraid to take on new challenges. He gave me the confidence to try law even though I knew very few lawyers growing up.
My dad also loved his work. He looked forward to going to work every day. His work was not just a job but a calling. I feel the same way about what I do. Every day at Mayer Brown is not perfect, but even after those less-than-perfect days the next day I still look forward to getting back to work to see what I can do. Sometimes a younger lawyer will see me to tender their resignation in order to go back to school or try a different career. This is often personally disappointing, particularly if it involves a lawyer that I mentored, but for the lawyer it’s often a courageous decision to find a job that is also calling. I praise them for that. Life is too short to be stuck in a career that does not inspire you. Law firm life is not for everyone. No one would agree more with their decision than my dad.
Reprinted with permission from the September 20, 2021 edition of Law.com © 2021 ALM Properties, Inc. All rights reserved. Further duplication without permission is prohibited.”