Next in this series is a conversation with Toby Brown, chief practice management officer at Perkins Coie LLP. Brown started his career at Fulbright & Jaworksi LLP, where he created and developed the firm’s pricing function. After a brief stint at Vinson & Elkins LLP, he joined Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP as pricing director and ultimately became chief practice officer. At Perkins Coie, Brown is the chief practice management officer, leading the firm’s revenue management and efficiency programs, legal project management, pricing, process improvement, practice innovation, alternative staffing and new partner integration.
Q: What do you do in your role as chief practice management officer?
A: I have a unique role overseeing what I call the “practice management space,” which is primarily driven by our business managers. They are tasked with driving success for their business units, or practice groups, in terms of revenue, margin, talent and more.
One piece of our work is assisting partners in talking to clients about pricing, including creating a process for analyzing pricing proposals and responding to RFPs. I also oversee our client value work, in which one of our experienced pricing experts engages with key clients, listening to their pain points and exploring pricing, alternative staffing and even practice innovation.
I took over lateral partner recruiting almost a year ago after Perkins went through a major growth phase, essentially shifting from quantity to quality in terms of talent. We rolled out a strategic plan and redesigned the recruiting structure to be primarily practice-based, with considerations for office and geography as well.
Most recently, I took on our pro bono practice, which is tied to driving profitability. It has become an integral piece of our client value work, with more and more key clients coming to us for help in this area.
Q: How will your role continue to evolve?
A: In the coming months, my focus will be on heavily influencing the business intake process. When partners bring a client into the firm, they should be asking, “Is this work going to be profitable?” I am trying to bake the concept of profitability into all of the firm’s decisions.
Q: What have you found to be most surprising?
A: I am beginning to feel a groundswell of urgency around positive change. Previously, you’d go to a lawyer and say, “We need to change this,” and they would reply, “You don’t understand.” Now, they’re finally saying, “We need to re-evaluate. Are the right people doing this? Can we do it more efficiently?” So I am encouraged, which may be a better word than surprised, that lawyers are starting to do that. And I see it across the board — even on the client side.
Q: In what way have changes to the legal landscape impacted revenue and efficiency management?
A: The obvious one is pricing. It’s important to understand our clients’ fee pains so we can develop proposals that meet their needs.
We’re also changing the way we deliver services. We need to ask ourselves: In order to generate X dollars in revenue, how do we work more efficiently, at lower costs, while maintaining and even improving client service?
Legal project management is another major piece because it’s about being on time and on budget. It’s doing it with cheaper hours, which is essentially pushing work down, and doing it with fewer hours, which is innovation.
Q: Are you seeing generally that the business professionals and the pricing function are becoming more outward facing with the clients?
A: Generally, yes. Once partners find out you can talk to the clients about billing rates, they like to put you in front of the clients. We go onsite and counsel clients on how they can get the most for their money, not just from Perkins Coie, but from any law firm.
Part of the challenge is that there aren’t many experienced pricing experts in the market, so I’m trying to scale this effort with my team. I involve our junior team members in the initial client meeting and bring them back later on to help with specific issues. Over time, we can introduce them to higher levels of client interaction and broaden our expertise.
Q: What key challenges do you and your firm face going forward?
A: I put challenges into two buckets: the client side and the business discipline side. On the client side, we need to collaborate more with legal operations on our shared challenge of identifying areas where we can drive efficiencies. Whether it’s with technology, alternative staffing or legal project management, if we come together with operations and get buy-in from both organizations, we’ll get better results in the market.
Business discipline also needs to become more of a focus now that the market has gone through all the cost-cutting we can possibly come up with. Similar to business intake, there are a number of areas where other businesses have more discipline and rigor — billing and collections, for example. We should look to them to improve the bottom line.
Q: What do you most enjoy about your job?
A: Put simply, I work with really smart and nice people. I like that because I like the challenge of it. For instance, if I propose changing how we manage time entry policies, I’ll have a few hundred partners wanting to know why. I have to be able to defend my reasoning at a moment’s notice. And I actually love that; it’s a very intellectually stimulating aspect of the job. Perkins in particular has a very kind culture. Even if we are debating an issue, in the end everyone always steps back and says “OK, we’ve come up with a solution; everything is good.”
Q: If you weren't in law firm management, what career would you have?
A: I think I would be in education, a professor of some sort. One of the things I like about my job is going toe to toe with smart people, educating them and opening their minds to new ideas. I also like researching and learning new things myself. Being a professor would probably be challenging and fulfilling in a similar way to working at a law firm.