A Chat With Davis Wright CSO Mark Usellis

In this monthly series, legal recruiting experts Amanda Brady and Amy Mallow from Major Lindsey & Africa interview law firm management from top Am Law 200 firms about how they are navigating 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.

Usellis has been Davis Wright Tremaine’s chief strategy officer for the past four years. Previously, he served as the firm’s chief marketing officer for five and a half years before stepping away to work in the private sector, consulting businesses on strategy. His previous career was spent working with organizations that intersect business and government.

Q: What do you do in your role as chief strategy officer?

My role is twofold. The first is to make sure that the firm moves forward at an appropriate speed. It’s easy to get so caught up in the urgency of today that we risk bobbing aimlessly and getting overtaken by events and competitors. It’s important to avoid that. The second is to work with firm leadership to decide where to allocate resources, be it financial or time attention, to help build top-shelf practices and the other capabilities the firm needs to be sustainably healthy for the long term.

Q: How have changes to the legal landscape affected law firm strategy?

First, firms actually need to have a strategy, and that’s a new development. The external environment has changed. Recent events like the financial crisis brought home the fact that we could no longer ride the tide of the market. There was a sudden realization that every firm’s position was tenuous and it was no longer enough for lawyers to simply apply intensity in their practice of law and in serving their clients.

Now, the profession overall has to apply that same intensity to running a firm. Outside financial pressures and increased competition mean firms need to have more vision and ambition. If they don’t, they’ll lose market share to the competition.

Q: What is the best way for law firms to identify and define their strengths in a meaningful and actionable way?

The first thing is to understand that there are limited areas in which they can invest time and energy. So they first have to understand their goals. At Davis Wright, we are working toward identifying, building and expanding a portfolio of top-of-market practices that make sense together. We started from the understanding that there are different ways that a practice can contribute to the firm. For example, some practices are engines while others are supporters but both types can play an important role in the right context. Then we focused on getting the right people in the right roles — the people who have vision and ambition — because it really does come down to that. While it’s critical to have a market opportunity, you need to have the right people who can take advantage of it, and then figure out how to bring them the resources and find other people to build up their teams.

Q: How do you distinguish yourself once that identity has been defined?

We really try to treat each client as an individual and each matter as a unique opportunity to understand what success looks like for that client at that moment. Then it’s about delivering our service in a way that meets our clients’ needs and their definition of success. It’s helpful to systematize the process for checking in with the client so you understand their needs and expectations. Then it’s important to show that you have the tools and the skill set to be able to adapt to their style. We want to convey that we understand, that we care and that we’re capable.

Q: In what way has increased competition affected your position and your firm?

We have a much sharper focus on what we’re doing, and we make decisions more efficiently and effectively — and with better internal clarity. A large challenge, however, is that the governance structure in most law firms hasn’t changed very much to enable better decision-making. As firms get bigger, the tendency is to keep all of the governance challenges of a partnership and increasingly lose the benefits of collegiality. That tends to erode the trust that can simplify the decision-making process.

This affects me because my job is to help the firm accomplish what it wants to accomplish without telling leadership what they should be doing. I can make suggestions about where they might want to focus their energies and help them think through next steps. I can point out gaps between what leaders say they want to accomplish and what they’re actually doing. But it's not for me to say “instead of accomplishing X, we should really try to accomplish Y” because that’s a values question and I'm not an owner of the firm—and it's important to understand the difference. So I try to listen and help, but the governance structure can make it hard to help as effectively as you’d like.

Q: What does leadership mean to you?

Leadership is about trying to change the environment and the status quo, whereas management is taking the status quo and trying to optimize it and make it run more efficiently and smoothly. Most jobs are some combination of both, but leadership is driven by trying to change things for the better.

Q: If you weren't in law firm management, what career would you have?

I still regret not having been a foreign correspondent. Having spent most of my childhood in Lebanon during a civil war, one of the most turbulent parts of the world, I was really interested in and appreciated the importance of how government works and the kinds of people who are involved in the political culture and relations between countries. There are so many fascinating stories there. I would have also liked to have a career that helps children. So many kids have limited opportunity to succeed just because of where they were born, and I would have loved to help them have the kinds of opportunities we and our kids take for granted.


This article was originally featured on  Law360 January 17, 2018.


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