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Raising the bar Featured

8:00pm EDT June 29, 2006
Barbara Rom is not only an attorney, she is also a dynamic manager. The managing partner of Pepper Hamilton’s Detroit office, Rom completed her undergraduate studies in psychology and did not initially consider law.

“My husband’s friend was going to law school, and I became intrigued with the idea after visiting with him on campus,” she says. “I love taking a position and defending it, so this was a perfect fit for my personality.”

After earning her law degree from the University of Michigan, Rom joined a small bankruptcy firm, where she met her mentor, who managed the firm.

“This gentleman is 23 years older than I. On the surface, we do not appear to have much in common in terms of gender or age,” Rom says. “However, he has been an invaluable support to me. He made sure I had good visibility in the legal community. I believe in mentoring and try to pass it on with those I can assist and influence.”

In 1989, Rom joined Pepper Hamilton, a full-service law firm with 400 lawyers nationwide.

Smart Business spoke with Rom about keeping staff and clients happy, and the most difficult lesson she’s learned.

How would you define the qualities of a great leader?
Obtaining timely and accurate information is essential. You cannot manage properly if you rely on rumor and hearsay. When you are responsible for setting policies and resolving personnel issues that impact your staff, you must get the facts, decipher them and make a decision.

That is the second quality that comes to mind — being decisive. Some people rethink, rethink and rethink more. You don’t have the luxury of overanalyzing in most companies.

Once I have the facts, I make a decision. The important next step is to communicate these decisions along with the rationale for them to staff. I need my employees’ hearts and minds — I must have their buy-in, and whether I get it or not depends on how I present the information.

We have intelligent and dedicated employees working here — they deserve that level of respect from me.

How do you keep your staff motivated?
We compensate well, and solicit and value their opinions. We have a number of meetings to make sure there is a steady stream of communication and interaction.

Based on my personal experience, I believe in mentoring, and we do have a formal mentor program at Pepper Hamilton. Our younger associates are paired with partners.

One of the advantages to this program is that the younger associates have hands-on contact with clients, under the guidance of their mentor. This is unique in that most law firms keep newer lawyers away from clients.

How do you keep your clients happy?
I’ve read many surveys about how customer service from law firms is perceived, and the No. 1 complaint seems to be lack of responsiveness from or accessibility to attorneys. So we go to extremes to avoid this irritant.

Attorneys do not make widgets — our business is communication. We put a lot of focus into delivering prompt and constant communication ... you cannot avoid communication without paying a price.

How do you create a cohesive company culture?
The one defining aspect of our culture is that nobody is perceived to be higher or lower on the totem pole. We are a team with different duties and responsibilities, but they are all essential and therefore, we respect one another.

We have one lunch room, one holiday party and we are on a first-name basis. There are very few barriers among the staff, which allows people to feel comfortable. We get the best out of our staff by setting a culture of mutual respect and courtesy.

Our focus is not internal — it is on our clients.

What is the most difficult professional lesson you have learned?
I read something that has stuck with me, and I literally think about it every day. It is a quote that says, ‘No one ever learns anything by hearing her own voice.’

My most difficult challenge has been to be quiet and listen. It is hard for attorneys, as we are mouthpieces and generally verbose and articulate. I believe this is powerful advice for most managers, though.

The other lesson I have learned is to not overcommit, and I did learn this the hard way. There is another saying I like, which is, ‘Time is not elastic.’ It will not stretch to fit everything you try to pack into your day, so you must learn how to say no.

HOW TO REACH: Pepper Hamilton, (313) 259-7110 or www.pepperlaw.com