Russ Gertmenian had just taken over as managing partner of Vorys, Sater, Seymour and Pease LLP when his first leadership challenge arose — the financial downturn of 2008-09. He realized that not only did he have an immediate problem of how to keep the company’s legal nose above water, but that there was a larger problem looming on the horizon.
“I’m not smart enough to know where the future is going, but what I know is that business is not going back to where it was,” he says. “I’ve been trying to remodel us in a collegial way so the next generation will have the most flexibility and be able to act in a very agile way fitting within our culture, to be able to adapt to whatever direction the marketplace goes.”
Gertmenian had to deal with changing the mindset that had developed over years of traditional experience and traditional thinking.
“The law profession was in an envious position over the period of time that I have been in practice; I got out of law school in 1972,” he says. “The law profession, and for large law firms in particular, was a growth profession. Firms were staffed with the idea that there would be additional growth year after year.
“We had an ability to price-power, meaning we could raise our rates as our expenses went up with relatively little pushback from our clientele because everybody was doing it. That all started to change, and 2008-09 really brought that into focus.”
Gertmenian had to look at his business model, which was geared to “we are going to be 10 percent bigger every year,” the company’s hiring expectations and morale among people who weren’t seeing the same kind of growth opportunities that they once had — “and managing people who never had to struggle to find work because there was always more than enough work to do.”
“That all has been a tremendous challenge in terms of what the law firms including mine needed to do. We needed to change our approaches so we had a mutually beneficial relationship in which our clients got what they needed and we were able to provide the services in a way where it made economic sense for us.”
Here are some of the tools Gertmenian used to develop a mindset to the new normal so the firm would survive for posterity.
Figure out your model
When the economy went into recession in 2008, it caused a lot of unrest in the business world, to put it mildly. Companies cut back their expenses, hoping that economizing would see them through. The thought was that in time, the economic climate would get back to where it had been; the decline was just cyclical.
“We never worried much into 2007 and 2008 about a downturn,” Gertmenian says. “We just assumed that bigger is coming. More, more and more. But I don’t think that is a valid assumption today.”
Once Gertmenian realized that point, he knew he had to figure out how to model the law firm, to modify it within the purview of what it was. This was so the next generation of lawyers there and the next generation of leadership would have the most flexibility to deal with the direction of the marketplace.
Rather than feeling adrift alone in an ocean of uncertainties, he searched for other professions having similar experiences in order for him to gain insights.
“Something similar was happening in the medical profession,” Gertmenian says. “People who were my age, in their 60s, entered a profession that operated in a certain way. Medicine has been transformed much more dramatically than law, in terms of how they operate. That just creates great anxiety and uncertainty among some of the older doctors, causing them to retire or to be unhappy — whereas the kids coming out of medical school today understand the gig.”
What he could see was that things evolve, and he had to view his job as getting his staff comfortable with evolution and change.
“I don’t believe you do that in most instances by simply decreeing from the top, ‘This is the way it is going to be,’” Gertmenian says. “So we don’t move as quickly as some of my partners would like us to move and perhaps as some other law firms move, but as we morph into what we are doing that’s different, we do it over a reasonable period of time when people are buying in to it.
“That has been good for us, and we have not jumped at all the newest fads. On the other hand, when we make some changes, over a period of time, there is real buy-in to it, and I think that gives us culturally tremendous strength.”
Talk about the situation
One of the first steps to take to change mindsets is probably no surprise to management or staff. It’s to communicate.
“You just talk a lot; I mean you really do,” Gertmenian says. “You talk about the realities of what is going on.”
If that takes rearranging the company structure to make it easier for dialogue, take that step.
“Reorganize the structure so that the people who are in charge of your substantive work groups are more than caretakers; they are really responsible for trying to operate their groups in a way that makes sense for the marketplaces they are in,” he says.
Those people, called group heads, are empowered to be stewards of their areas, having significant input to the requirements and direction of the group.
“For instance, they need to decide how many people they need,” Gertmenian says. “What are their future hiring needs? Where do they see the opportunities? Where should our people be most active in terms of trying to develop skill sets and where should they be most active in terms of trying to penetrate the market for new work? Where is the market going to be in five years?”
Gertmenian charged the group heads with making those determinations.
Be patient, however. He says it took two to three years to get the concept sold and in place so that today it is absolutely accepted.
“They are responsible in a very real sense for the direction, size and emphasis within the group,” he says. “Also, they are responsible for getting their people to understand how to best provide the services in those areas and the particular clients that can be done in an economical way yet that satisfies the needs of our clients,” he says.
The “group heads” structure broadens the management responsibility.
“I think we are getting really good communication with our lawyers at those levels,” Gertmenian says. “You just simply can’t talk to 350 or 400 people on a regular basis about what’s going on in their practice.”
Recast the mold of your customer
Another necessary step in making over mindsets is to relook at what your customer wants. If you’ve always had a picture that your customer liked A, B and C, in the new normal today, that customer might prefer D, E and F instead.
“Today, I don’t think clients are willing to pay for overkill,” Gertmenian says. “And we have a generation of lawyers that wasn’t schooled that way, that wasn’t trained that way. We’ve got to get them to accept the new workplace reality in a way that is constructive and a way that, frankly, allows them to train younger people to accept that.
“It is difficult for them to train people that way because that is not their gut instinct.”
If you have been delivering overkill to a client who may be satisfied with less, those procedures might well need to be revised.
“You have to understand that there are things the client really cares about and things that are just part of the cost of doing business,” Gertmenian says. “You have to provide excellent services that meet your client’s needs or you will lose your clients.”
In two words, it’s about “working smarter” — putting in the time efficiently to fill the customer’s order so that he or she is satisfied.
How do you decide if you are so efficient in trimming down costs that it may affect your customer service?
“It is certainly a possibility, but frankly, I think our lawyers will tell us that,” Gertmenian says. “Our clients will tell us that too. The biggest obstacle to some of the changes that we’ve put in that way has been our lawyers who have been concerned. We’ve looked at it, and we have massaged it, then we put it in and when we are not getting that negative feedback saying, ‘I told you so,’ I have a pretty good feeling we are not losing clients and we are not losing market share. I’ve got a pretty good feeling it is working.
“In fact, we have been able to attract some additional business because of the basic health of our law firm and the changes that we have been instituting in terms of being becoming more efficient for them.” ?
How to reach: Vorys, Sater, Seymour and Pease LLP, (614) 464-6400 or www.vorys.com
The Gertmenian File
Vorys, Sater, Seymour and Pease LLP
Born: New York. I was raised primarily in New Jersey. My family spent six years in Minneapolis, but my wife and I are both from the East Coast.
Education: I went to college at Rutgers University and Columbia Law School.
What was your first job and what did you learn from it?
I used to caddy when I was real young, and I think I got paid $2.50 a golf bag. The first real job I had as far as punching a time clock was when I was a bagger at a grocery store at eighth grade or ninth grade. I learned that you needed to pack the bags carefully because otherwise if you put eggs at the bottom, they broke and you had customers coming back to complain. It made me go to work on time. I felt pretty lucky to have the job.
Whom do you admire in business?
I was trained primarily by the late Art Vorys, senior partner here. He had more impact on me than anybody in our law firm in terms of my approach to the practice. He was a ‘can-do’ guy. He had a kind of a Marine mentality: listen to your clients and help them get to where they want to get to. And don’t tell them why they can’t get there. Your job is to figure out how to get there. John Elam, who was a managing partner in this firm, really influenced me in terms of culture of the firm, how to look to the law firm in terms of promoting our roles within the community, how to give back to the community and how to try to meld lots of people into one unit.
What is the best business advice you have ever received?
With Art, it was, ‘Work hard and help your client get to where they want to get to.’ With John it was, ‘The institution’s the most important thing we’ve got going here. It’s the reputation of this institution which we cannot allow to erode in any way or it will have an impact on the law firm long term.’ From my parents, it was, ‘Look in the mirror, and if you can say, “I am trying to do the right thing and I am working as hard as I can work at it,” that is all you can do. Be happy with yourself.’
What is your definition of business success?
In my view, sitting in the law firm, I would say it is maintaining and increasing the reputation, the integrity and the continued vitality of my firm. If I can posture it in a way to develop the next generation of management, and model it in a way that gives the law firm and its future lawyers the greatest ability to deal with the marketplace successfully, I will consider what I have done to be successful.