John Bentine, managing partner of 70-person law firm Chester, Wilcox & Saxbe, knows the key to running any business is strong communication and maintaining a company culture rooted in ethical behavior.
“We have always had good communication with our clients,” he says. “And we’ve been fortunate. Our clients tend to be folks who are very cognizant of their ethical obligations.” Chester, Wilcox & Saxbe clients include Scioto Downs, Hill Distributing Co., the city of Columbus and The Ohio State University, and it was one of the counsels for Ohio in the lawsuit against Big Tobacco that brought a $10 million settlement for the state.
Smart Business spoke with Bentine about the importance of ethics and how to maintain good internal and external communication.
Q: How do you work with clients to make sure they run their companies in an ethical manner?
In the last couple years, with Enron, Bernie Ebbers, Martha Stewart and, closer to home, Roger Blackwell, a number of ethical issues have come to the forefront. And a number of things have happened in conjunction with those headlines, such as Sarbanes-Oxley, even though that doesn’t necessarily apply to smaller entities.
Even if they are private and not covered by Sarbanes-Oxley because of their size, CEOs are looking to that as a guide for what they do in terms of management control and reporting to the board.
We work with our clients to make sure they understand what their obligations, either legal or to their accounting folks, might be. Then, we appropriately suggest that they adopt some of those measures.
Q: How do you apply that philosophy internally?
We try to create a culture that is clear that ethics and professionalism are a huge part of the practice of law.
We look for people who have a very strong ethical sense. Internally, we have a designated ethics partner whose job it is to help guide us to the extent if there is ever a question.
We have both a formal and an informal mentoring program for our younger employees that includes ethical help. We have regular meetings of our business transactional group and our litigation group at least once a month. A standing item on the agenda in both of those forums is ethical issues.
[Co-founder] Jack Chester’s leadership is an example. Jack and his family established at the Columbus Bar Foundation a gift which allows the foundation to sponsor once a year a professionalism/ ethics seminar. It is an all-day seminar that brings in speakers, both locally and nationally, to put on programs about very sophisticated ethical issues and how you deal with those.
Q: How do you communicate with your staff?
Internally, I am a great believer in a lot of communication. My door is always open. I don’t use the intercom much because if I need to talk to somebody, I walk to their office.
By walking to their office, I not only get to go in and talk, and perhaps talk about something else other than that particular issue that I was going to touch base with them on, which fosters communication, but I also walk through the office. I talk to people and see what is going on. I found that to be a very good communication tool.
That is an active, informal communication system I have found to be helpful in not only keeping myself informed but answering questions out in the office.
Q: How do you communicate more formally?
We have regular meetings of our practice groups. Our partnerships have regular meetings and our associates have regular meetings. After those meetings, the management committee and I meet with all of the associates and discuss anything they want to discuss.
We also have retreats. And we have what I would call a corporate psychologist strategy person who works with boards at a number of large corporations and has a relationship with this firm.
He’ll sit down with partners and associates one-on-one and get their thoughts. That will be communicated back to us, with anonymity being assured, so they can get off their chests anything that they may have on it.
That fellow goes to our retreats, facilitates and helps us with strategic planning.
The partnership is given reports on the management committee’s actions and we make operating reports and other things on a more formal basis than you might find elsewhere.
I am the managing partner, but that means I report to all of the partners, not vice versa. I believe in building consensus; that’s what we’ve been able to do with all of the major decisions in this law firm.
Q: How do you communicate externally?
Our philosophy is, get to know the clients and their business. We encourage nonbillable time. Then the client doesn’t think that you’re just out there trying to build up billable hours, and we try to establish a lot of informal communication with them, so we know what is going on.
We try to ensure that client contact is ‘zippered,’ that is that there are multiple contacts with the client so that associates that are working on matters have direct client contact, if not with the primary person, then at an appropriate level. Then there is not necessarily just one spigot under which information is flowing back and forth between the client and our firm.
We can be more efficient getting done what they need done.
Q: How have you applied this philosophy to get involved as a corporate citizen?
We have always had the philosophy that law firms need to be well-rounded. You have to have family time, community time and a good professional ethical practice so that you are doing the highest-quality work.
We don’t, for example, look to our partners to do a set amount of billable hours. We expect and encourage people to be involved in the community. And we actively help them to do that.
We encourage bar association activities, but our philosophy, which we attempt to impart and we attempt to live by, is to look at a well-rounded life. We want people smiling when they come in here. We don’t want people who are going to come in and build 2,500 billable hours or 3,000 billable hours and neglect the rest of the community and the rest of life.
So we try to build our structure in a way that encourages that and doesn’t just encourage coming in here and billing as many hours as you can.
How to reach: Chester, Wilcox & Saxbe, (614) 221-4000 or www.cwslaw.com