In an interview, Van Gorp details the role Mayer Brown's podcasts play in keeping attorneys and staff informed and fulfilled.
On the back of a successful year, Mayer Brown is positioning itself for further growth in 2022 and beyond, beginning with the recent launch of a Salt Lake City office. “You’re either growing or you’re dying,” chair Jon Van Gorp said in an interview. For Mayer Brown, that means navigating the war for talent and helping clients do the same. In this conversation, which has been lightly edited, Van Gorp discusses how his role as a burgeoning podcast host contributes to that effort, how he’s working to provide attorneys the balance they need, and why law firms and their clients face similar challenges right now.
Ben Seal: What’s the mood around the firm these days?
Jon Van Gorp: People are really feeling good about things. We had a very strong financial performance last year and people know about that. We’re pretty communicative here with everybody about the momentum of the business. The managing partner and I have a podcast called “The Monthly Check-In,” which is a new thing we’re trying. Everybody can tune in and hear what’s happening at the firm, following our monthly partners meeting. We repurpose that information to put it into a podcast format. So they’re able to know the things we’re doing and where we’re achieving results. The firm has a pretty strong strategic plan that’s in its third year of execution. We’ve been doing a really good job of doing the things called for in the strategic plan and our lawyers and business services staff members see that happening and it makes them feel like they’re part of something with some real purpose that is driving toward goals that are being achieved. I think that creates a lot of optimism around our whole workforce.
BS: Now that the dust has settled on 2021, how did Mayer Brown fare?
JVG: The firm grew nicely last year, 9% demand growth. Profits were up substantially over our prior year, so it was profitable growth, which is exactly what we want.
BS: Where was the growth coming from?
JVG: We had really nice performance across all of our regions, particularly Europe and the U.S. The capital markets group had a very strong performance, as you can imagine—the market was very conducive for capital markets work. Our finance practice had a breakout performance, so did real estate.
Our funds group, which is a strategic focus of ours, also had a really strong year. Many of those groups are global groups that complement each other. So, for example, the real estate and funds groups work together on real estate funds, and that’s been a very successful business of ours.
Our litigation group had a very good year as well. That’s the biggest group in the firm, so generally speaking when litigation is having a good year the whole firm is having a good year too.
BS: What type of expectations do you have for 2022? Is there any concern at your firm and others that meeting last year’s success will be a challenge?
JVG: With the geopolitical environment as it is, it’s hard to know what’s going to happen. We are in many ways tied to those events in economies around the world where we do business. We think we’re well positioned to do well against any kind of backdrop, so we’re optimistic about 2022. In 2021, not only did we grow our demand by 9% but we also grew our head count by 9%, so we expanded to about 1,900 lawyers. And we added 52 lateral partners last year.
We invested in new people last year. There are recruiting fees and other things associated with bringing over lateral partners to achieve that growth, and because we hired in areas that are key to our strategy, we think that can help unlock opportunities on our platform. We think those businesses will pick up speed in 2022, so that gives us another tailwind for our performance even if there are challenges in the global economy.
BS: Is there a number you typically have in mind for head count growth?
JVG: We don’t set growth targets with regard to the number of partners we hire but we have them for the size of our business. We do expect accelerated or continued growth year over year. You’re either growing or you’re dying, and we want to be growing and evolving. So we want to be both bigger and more capable of serving client needs and evolving with the demands that are changing in the market, and that involves bringing new people into the business.
We don’t have a target that we’re going to hire one partner a week like we did last year. We have more of a design where we’re going to hire into these areas that are priorities for us. And then we go out and hire people who are compelled by the proposition of working at Mayer Brown and are good fits culturally. We hire for the long run—we want to hire people that are going to retire here. We spend a lot of time identifying fit. That’s a big part of my job—working on lateral hiring.
BS: What are the particular areas where you think the firm is ripe for growth, whether that’s in industries or practices?
JVG: We have a matrix management system that is managed by traditional practices like corporate, litigation, finance, real estate. But we overlay industry and product teams that sit between practices with people who have a similar focus on an industry or a product. A good example is insurance. We have a very active insurance team that has corporate lawyers, litigation, regulatory, finance lawyers that participate in an industry team that tries to be one-stop shopping for insurance companies on anything they need.
In a world where clients are consolidating the panels of outside counsel they use, we think these industry teams position us well. Then we also have the traditional practice management that most law firms have. So we’ve been pretty nimble as a result of that because we use those industry and product teams to do hiring as well, so that we can bring people into the industry groups to be the one-stop shop for clients in that industry where our platform can serve them across their needs and across the globe.
BS: Which of those industry and product teams are key to where you’re looking to grow in the coming years?
JVG: We already have a really good base in fintech and we’d like to continue to grow there because there’s lots of opportunities in the new economy to support fintech companies. We’d also like to grow in technology and life sciences. And as a product, because it ties into the industries—and this goes to our Salt Lake City office opening—we also want to be building a bigger and enhanced emerging company and venture capital practice. An industry focus on life sciences and technology really necessitates the capability to support emerging companies and venture capital because they’re heavy investors in those spaces. So those two things go together. Fintech, technology and life sciences line up with a buildout of our emerging companies venture capital practice, and that’s the reason we opened in Salt Lake City.
BS: In many cases, firms quickly increased transparency and communication from leadership early in the pandemic, but it’s started to return to more normal levels in recent months, leaving a lot of lawyers and staff wondering why. How have you approached that effort?
JVG: It’s a really big topic as we still struggle to get back to the normal ways we operate. The hybrid work structure we’ve adopted puts a premium on communication and we’ve leaned into that as opposed to going the other direction. I like the podcasting because people are tired of screens and email and the last thing they want to do is see another Zoom or read another email, so this is a new way to deliver information to people.
I started “Tools of the Trade” about 18 months ago, co-hosted with Sally Davies, who is a former managing partner of our London office and now on our management committee with me. We talk about practice development—not how to be an expert in a particular area of law but how to develop a client. We had a podcast with internal guests on how to represent a startup company because representing a brand new company is different than representing a company that’s existed for 100 years. Those are particularly well liked by our senior associates and younger partners who are hard at work building their practices. Those come out every two weeks.
I already mentioned “The Monthly Check-In,” where my managing partner Jeremy Clay and I talk about what’s going on at the firm in a very casual way. And then the people on the management committee that run our lateral hiring effort have a podcast called “Laterally Speaking.” Each month they interview one of our new laterals to ask what they’re bringing to the firm and maybe more importantly what the firm can do to help them.
BS: How would you describe your leadership philosophy?
JVG: I try to be very empowering of everybody on our platform. This has got to be the best place for people to build their practices and careers, otherwise they’ll just go somewhere else. It’s just the way the war for talent is these days. And it’s more than money that holds people in. They like going to work and they want work to be supportive of their ideas and what they’re doing. So rather than a top-down management style I try to go the other direction, which is empowering and adding animation to their ideas and figuring out how we can help them achieve their goals and dreams. We have some really high-performing people here. We’re just trying to get them where they want to go and make them better.
I also recognize accomplishments and encourage more. I write lots of personal letters to people giving them a personal thank you for what they’ve done. We’re creating an environment where everybody is meaningful and everybody has purpose. We’re so much better together than we are individually. That’s a leadership style that really works in a law firm and is working well for me. That’s just the way I have always been encouraged and managed by the mentors that I had in this firm, who were terrific people. It’s big on mentoring, support and empowerment, as opposed to directives and mandates.
BS: Have you felt a need to change anything about the firm’s approach to keep up with the competition for talent these days?
JVG: We have a pretty good base to build from here because we’re an incredibly collaborative place and there’s a culture of support and communal work here. Our partners don’t compete with each other. We reward joint efforts above everything else and we’ve always done that. So that helps keep harmony in the partnership, and that trickles down to all of our departments. There’s a real communal effort here on a macro and a micro level. There are teams of people who will get together to work on projects and cover for each other if things come up. They work together to make it a place where everybody can feel like they have some balance between work and things outside of work.
That’s what I hear most often from lawyers is they love the job, they want to be high-performing and doing sophisticated work, but they also want a little bit of balance and a sense that if something comes up somebody is going to have their back. Life is unpredictable. So it’s that balance of creating a high-performing culture where people do difficult things and solve difficult problems, but also that there’s a tremendous community of support here so that we rally around everybody to make sure people can have the kind of work-life balance they’re trying to achieve.
BS: How do you feel about where you are right now with talent?
JVG: I feel really good about our talent base. We grew 9% in head count last year, so we’re compelling as a destination for people if they want to come and practice. We’re on the right road here, we just have to continue to do what we do because the war for talent is making it even more important that we focus on the experience of people as opposed to just the output.
BS: What are clients asking for that’s new and different?
JVG: They’re facing the same war for talent that we’re facing. If they’ve done work internally they may be down a few lawyers and may need more help from us because they don’t have the internal resources they used to have. They’re incredibly busy like we are because the world is only getting more complicated and complex and the legal issues are getting more complicated and complex. Clients are struggling with that. We can help with that but we’re also obviously trying to make sure we have the right talent in the right quantities to be able to help address all these problems adequately and on-time. We’re in much the same position. One of their biggest concerns, and I talk to clients a lot about this, is recruiting and retaining talent no matter what business they’re in. And that includes not for profits that I support in my community outreach. They’re all having a hard time retaining talent. It’s not limited to the for-profit world of clients.
BS: What keeps you up at night?
JVG: It’s talent development and retention. We used to say 99% of our assets walk out the door every night. Now they don’t walk in the door so they’re all out the door every day in many cases where we’re not in the offices because of health and safety protocols. Making this a place where people want to work when you’re not held together by bricks and mortar is a continual challenge. And I like the challenge. There’s some interesting ideas we’ve activated here. But it’s a constant concern because the things that used to hold people in are not the things that hold people in today. It’s the thing that makes me most focused on my job but also most concerned.
“Reprinted with permission from the February 7, 2022 edition of The American Lawyer © 2022 ALM Properties, Inc. All rights reserved. Further duplication without permission is prohibited.”