Thomas A. Brophy Featured

8:00pm EDT October 26, 2007

Hardly anyone has positive feelings about an audit, but Thomas A. Brophy looks back on an audit at Marshall, Dennehey, Warner, Coleman & Goggin with pride. The president and CEO of the law firm says the employees didn’t see the audit as a threat and didn’t use it as a way to dump on their co-workers, and the auditors were struck by the employees’ pride and commitment on the first day they were there. That candor, trust and loyalty from the more than 900 employees result from the respect given to them by the firm’s leaders, Brophy says. Smart Business spoke with Brophy about how he educates his employees about the big picture and how he makes sure the firm doesn’t grow too fast.

Don’t get ahead of yourself. We’ve turned down some growth opportunities because the opportunities weren’t the right fit for us culturally or geographically, and we did not want to grow too quickly.

It may sound trite, but I always think back to that movie ‘A Bridge Too Far,’ where the Allied troops went into Germany, but they were so far out in front that they couldn’t supply their own troops. There’s a danger to getting ahead of ourselves. So we’ve grown carefully, and in a large part, regionally.

Our growth has been logical because we work with similar clients, just in newer venues. We’re able to support those new clients from existing operations.

We want to make sure growth we have is consistent with culture, the quality of work that we do and the competency of our lawyers, and that growth will be profitable to the firm. If you grow too quickly, you can lose your culture, dilute the quality of what you do, and you may not have the competency to do the work you want. So we want to limit our growth so that it’s strategic and preserves those qualities.

Hire people who fit. Ultimately, you’ve got to hire good people, and you’ve got to empower them, and you’ve got to trust them. And if you’ve got the wrong people in positions, you’ve got to move them out as quickly as possible. Leaders who don’t do those things are going to fail.

And then once they’re hired, assimilate them into the core culture as quickly as possible. We’ve had regional managers who have been here a long time, who are excellent ambassadors for the firm.

They travel from office to office helping to maintain that culture. Before I became CEO, one of my jobs was to oversee regional offices opening up. You are looking to add people who want to be part of the team. You’re looking to avoid prima donnas and people who will conflict with the culture or people who will resent or resist centralized management.

Remember your humble beginnings. Leaders who are successful don’t lose sight of who they are and how they got to be where they are. Leaders who are successful are honest and direct in communicating with superiors at a younger age, with their peers as they move up the ranks of an organization and with their subordinates.

As a leader, because you say something should get done doesn’t mean that it has been done. So you need to follow up. Leaders need to be honest and consistent and follow up so people with whom they’re working know that things will be completed.

Listen up. One of the skills that’s often overlooked among leaders is the ability to listen. Sometimes lawyers think their job is to talk, when, in fact, it is to listen. There are lots of ways to see when something is not going well. You may see it financially with reduced revenues, you may see it in turnover, or you may see it in a greater frequency of client complaints.

Impose a team-first mentality. The difficulty of managing lawyers is that they are trained to be autonomous, so they tend not to respond well to management.

We’ve been able to impose a general business discipline on the practice. We’re consistent about it. We have a number of tools we utilize internally to make sure our lawyers are practicing accordingly. At the same time, we do provide them with a good amount of autonomy to make the kind of decisions they need to make on behalf of legal matters they are handling for our clients.

Show employees the big picture. Lawyers are, by design, trained to work as individuals or work in small teams and not to see themselves as part of a team or bigger process. I spend a lot of my time educating and persuading our lawyers that our best fortune lies in working together as a large team.

Our lawyers believe that, but they need to be reminded because the practice of law constantly pulls them back into adversarial teams on restricted projects for which confidentiality and secrecy are very important.

Trial lawyers who are great are great because they’re able to block out other kinds of distractions. Businesspeople are great not because they can block out distractions but because they can see the big picture. So I’m looking to make our lawyers more business-oriented but, at the same time, not to lose the skills that make them effective as trial attorneys and as litigators.

I started my career as a high school teacher, and I still see a lot of my job as education, like persuading our lawyers to go out of their comfort zone and to see what we do as a bigger piece of the business marketplace than lawyers traditionally have done.

Stay on top of changes. I’m constantly studying the marketplace looking at what law firms are doing, looking at what our competitors are doing. We need to educate lawyers about rapidity by which the market is changing. As lawyers better understand the marketplace, they’re better able to service their clients.

(The marketplace) is changing quickly because of the courts, because of technology, because of what the legislature is doing. You have to be aware of what’s happening in your market. At the same time, we have a vision of what we want to be; I’m trying to make sure we stay true to that vision.

HOW TO REACH: Marshall, Dennehey, Warner, Coleman & Goggin, (215) 575-2600 or