In this new 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.
The first in this series is a conversation with Laura Saklad, chief operations officer for Orrick Herrington & Sutcliffe LLP. Saklad joined Orrick in 2004 as the firm’s first director of professional development. In her 13-plus years at the firm, she has grown in her roles from chief talent officer, responsible for the firm's innovative people-related initiatives, to COO about two years ago.
Q: In your time as COO of Orrick, what has been most surprising to you?
A: One of the most surprising changes is the increased focus on innovation in everything that we do. The focus has shifted from ensuring that we keep the trains running on time, which continues to be critically important, to rethinking the way we run all aspects of our business. That ranges from how we recruit, develop and retain talent to how we incorporate technology into the way we practice and manage the firm. At the end of the day, it’s driven by one question: How do we listen to our clients to deliver service and value?
With this trend, firms are shifting more responsibility for the business of the firm to people in professional roles so that their partners can spend more time with clients. That’s been our focus here.
I think the heavy emphasis on innovation in law firms has also led more Am Law firms to recruit COOs from diverse backgrounds. I’ve had the privilege of meeting COOs that come from not only the traditional financial background, but from marketing and operations, and from industries other than law.
Q: What key challenges do you face as COO?
A: Aligning everything we do around our strategy. We have three clear strategic priorities: to be a leader in technology, energy and infrastructure, and finance; to be a "best place to work"; and to innovate in everything that we do. Within that, the question becomes how you determine what investments and choices are going to best drive that strategy. You must figure out what you’re going to say yes to, but also — and more challengingly — what you’re going say no to. It’s difficult to say no in any business, and that is particularly difficult in a partnership.
Q: What do you enjoy most about your job?
A: I love watching people thrive, no matter what role they’re in. One of the great things about this position is that I have the opportunity to work with people throughout the organization. If I’m able to play a small part in helping people be more successful through personal coaching, then that’s even more rewarding.
The other thing that I love about my job is that because there’s so much change in the industry, we’re constantly looking at how to improve. How do we meet the demands of today and anticipate the demands of tomorrow? It’s never dull; it’s challenging; and it really makes a difference.
Also, I work with people who are inspiring, creative and enjoyable to be around. This is a hard job, but it’s enjoyable when you’re working with great colleagues.
Q: What’s the single most important change you would make to advance the business of law in this increasingly competitive industry?
A: There are three intertwined changes I think are important. First we need to listen carefully to our clients, then align the organization and our people around what we hear. We often hear clients want a focus on value, which translates to thinking like the clients, understanding their business, solving their legal problems and helping them manage costs — and doing so in a predictable fashion.
One of the most interesting challenges is how to effectively adapt our metrics system. How are we going to use the data we have to be responsive to what clients are asking of us? We need to think about how we can better measure client satisfaction and increase our focus on outputs, which I’d describe as quality and value, versus inputs, or hours and rates.
Lastly, I would be remiss not to mention that we must continue to focus on diversity. I’ve focused on diversity efforts for much of my career, and I’m really proud of Orrick’s progress and our position as a leader in this area. But there is so much more to do, and we must do more in order to be the firm we want to be and to meet our clients’ needs.
Q: What does leadership mean to you?
A: We use a definition here at Orrick that perfectly expresses my personal definition of leadership, which is, simply put, making the people around you better. Leadership shows differently at different levels of the organization — and in this role, you have the opportunity to work with people in different levels and to provide them with early opportunities to show that they can succeed.
I have benefited throughout my career from having mentors and sponsors who created opportunities for me to learn and to demonstrate my skills, and I strongly believe that those opportunities played a significant role in my success. They make a difference, and we as a firm — and as leaders — have an obligation to create them for our people.
Q: If you weren’t in law firm management, what career would you have?
A: I’ve been in law firms for so long that it's hard to picture myself in another industry. Once you’ve worked with lawyers for as long as I have, it gets in your DNA. I often watch the way our awesome employment lawyers advise their clients and work with me, helping me deal with some of our most challenging issues, and as I work with them, I find myself thinking how much I would enjoy solving the problems they solve. And we’re lucky enough to have some really kickass women doing employment work here … so if I wasn’t in law firm management, I’d like to be an employment lawyer — here at Orrick, of course.
This article was originally featured on Law360, December 15, 2017.