A Chat With McDermott Will COO John Yoshimura

In this monthly series, legal recruiting expert Amanda K. Brady from Major, Lindsey & Africa interviews law firm management from Am Law 100 and 200 firms about how they navigate an increasingly competitive business environment. Discussions delve into how these key management roles are changing and introduce the people who aspire to improve and advance the business of law.

Next in this series is a conversation with John Yoshimura, chief operating officer of McDermott Will & Emery LLP. After more than 25 years with A.T. Kearney Inc., Yoshimura made the transition to the legal industry, bringing his extensive experience in strategic consulting and operational leadership to McDermott in 2015.

Q: In your time as COO of McDermott, what has been most surprising to you?

A: The tendency in the legal industry to follow the pack surprised me. I know there's a lot of pressure to make decisions based on what peer firms are doing, but you need to be careful to not get caught up in that type of mindset. It's important to take a step back and make decisions that are strategic for your individual firm.

The second biggest surprise is how much movement there is across the industry, especially when it comes to partners moving from firm to firm. I realize that there will always be some level of mobility, but I think the goal for a firm should be to nurture and retain talented partners by creating a culture where every member of the team is respected, supported and inspired to succeed.

Q: What do you consider the greatest challenges you and your firm are experiencing in today’s legal market?

A: The biggest challenge is recruiting. Organic growth can be slow, so lateral recruiting is important to us. We not only want lawyers who practice at the highest levels, but also people who will embrace McDermott's culture — putting clients first, loving what they do and supporting their colleagues. It is a challenge to pull the best people out of other organizations, because if they're successful, they tend to not want to move. But in order to grow, we need to succeed at recruiting.

The second challenge — and this applies not only to the legal industry but to professional services in general — is diversity. Encouraging diverse perspectives is critical to our success. Diversity enables us to provide the best services to our clients, bringing all of the best perspectives and creating a productive and happy environment. We do global surveys every year, and it's clearly articulated by our people that they want a diverse work environment. They find it more stimulating, challenging and enjoyable.

Q: What key challenges do you face as COO?

A: On the staff side, the challenge is finding talented, executive-level individuals who are willing to take the leap that I did and go into the legal industry. It's difficult to find people who can bring fresh perspectives from outside the industry, but who also aren't afraid to take on the challenges unique aspects of the legal industry.

On the attorney side, it’s challenging to balance our need for productivity and performance at the highest levels with personal relationships and our desire for quality work-life balance. We, as a firm, believe that excellence and happiness go hand-in-hand. So while we do emphasize and require productivity and performance, we try to do so without sacrificing relationships a collaborative culture and experiences that make us well-rounded individuals.

Q: What do you enjoy most about your job?

A: It's the ability to have an impact on the strategic direction of the firm and its performance. Over the last two years, we've made significant investments across multiple areas. It's a challenge to do this in the legal industry, but we’ve been able to make those investments because of a well-articulated strategy and desire to differentiate — and it's starting to pay dividends. All of our key metrics (revenue, productivity and profitability) are up 10 to 15 percent over 2017.

Each of the changes we make have to do three things: (1) Make us more indispensable to our clients and improve our ability to work with them; (2) boost the productivity of our attorneys by making their lives easier and taking away what they don't need to be doing; and (3) have a positive impact on profitability, which affects compensation. If a change does those three things, the firm tends to get on board.

Q: What’s the single most important change you would make to advance the business of law in this increasingly competitive industry?

Firms need to work collaboratively with clients on fundamental issues that are going to (and already do) impact us. The biggest is artificial intelligence, which is going to improve productivity for law firms. However, it is going to have some negative consequences in terms of the amount of work available for associates. Clients will put pressure on pricing and what they are willing to pay for young associates, but the firms and clients need to consider the long term and how it will impact their partner pipeline. Firms and clients will need to do some joint thinking to make sure that the industry remains viable in terms of the skill level that needs to exist in the people and not just in the technology.

Q: What attracted you to the legal industry?

A: I was looking for a new challenge. I had never thought about the legal industry before because it's not a natural transition, and historically I don't think the legal industry hired a lot from outside of the industry, but it sounded interesting and challenging and somewhat similar to management consulting. At the same time, it sounded as though the legal industry was a number of years behind management consulting. So it was clear to me that there were major opportunities to transform an organization and to have an impact on the industry.

Q: What does leadership mean to you?

A: Leadership is about bringing new ideas and facilitating change. If it's a new idea, it's going to require change. A leader also needs to develop people, because that's how you get the best results from the entire organization.

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