STEPHEN POOR – chairman of Seyfarth Shaw

Steve Poor - chairman of Seyfarth & ShawWhen did you first decide to become a lawyer, and why? 

I was a political science major in college.  At the time, going to law school seemed like the thing to do with that major. 

What differences do you see in today's legal market compared to when you started?

Growing competition, complexity, uncertainty – these are themes we see everywhere in business.  The changes that are specific to the legal market have to do with how those pressures are reshaping the roles of institutions and of individuals in those institutions.  The corporate legal function itself is evolving and expanding, and general counsel find themselves in a position where they must wear more hats.  Many CLOs and GCs are legal advisors to the corporation’s top leadership, but on top of that, they must also become a risk manager for the corporation, a more sophisticated buyer of services, a designer and manager of new supply chains for legal services, and sometimes an operations manager of fairly large and complex in-house teams. 

In that environment, how can outside counsel help those clients create and implement effective solutions?  That question presents new challenges and new choices for outside counsel – at both the institutional and individual level.  What new capabilities and skills are necessary for lawyers to succeed?  When I think back to when I started in the industry, I think these questions didn’t exist in the same way and in the past ten years they continue to become more relevant and more critical.  Individual lawyers need to make more complex decisions in how they pursue a course of professional development and advancement, and organizations need to make more finely tuned decisions in how they nurture that development and advancement.

What achievement are you most proud of?

It’s not a tangible achievement per se and it is an achievement I share with many, many others at the firm, but I’m most proud of the culture that we have nurtured and reinforced at Seyfarth Shaw.  There’s a number of watershed moments and accomplishments I could point to but I think that the firm’s continuing vitality and success owes a lot to the backdrop and foundation we’ve built in creating a sense of place and identity – that we are a firm that is clear-eyed about the changes in the profession and the marketplace, focused on the changing needs of our clients, committed to looking at every problem through the client’s eyes, and most of all empowered to explore and experiment to find better ways to serve our clients’ interests for the long haul.  That is something that has taken years to establish and requires ongoing commitment to renew, representing the dedication of many leaders and team members.  In doing so, we create opportunities anew for more individuals to drive meaningful change and deliver meaningful impact.

What do you consider your greatest failure or regret?

One of the biggest challenges with which I have had to deal is the need to develop patience with people who are traveling along a journey of change.  Change is a difficult process for everyone and, if one is to be successful leading people to a different way of approaching the practice of law, you have to learn to meet them where they are.  That is not something that comes naturally to me – or, I suspect, to most people.

Who is your legal hero?  

Thurgood Marshall.  He is one of those greats who demonstrated the ability of an individual to use the power of law to improve the lives of others and effectuate change. 

What career would you have in your second life? 

Rock guitarist.

"Take the time during the early years of your career to observe and process which incentives and motivators are genuinely important to you. Financial rewards are usually only a small part of that story." 

What advice would you give to students trying to enter the legal profession today?

First, to think concretely about your strengths and what you enjoy doing with your day, and to make concrete observations about how certain career choices shape your commitments and your day-to-day responsibilities. Second, take the time during the early years of your career to observe and process which incentives and motivators are genuinely important to you. Financial rewards are usually only a small part of that story. 

The law is a multi-faceted discipline and it offers a number of ways for talented individuals to create value, but it’s up to you to decide how to translate your education and training into something that benefits your clients and your employer. 

And secondly, to those who hope to ultimately get into labor and employment law?

Labor and employment is an area of law that shapes the basic mechanics of how our economy and its many players work together to create value. In that sense, labor and employment law offers unparalleled opportunities to create lasting and meaningful partnerships with clients, but by the same token, it requires a focus on business objectives and a functional understanding of business mechanics. 

"Success in this field requires a practical bent and a propensity to solve problems rather than win arguments."

I think the practice rewards those with a willingness to go out into the field and observe how laws and regulations affect people and organizations in the real world. In some instances, the work also affords the opportunity to play a part in cases of first impression that have incredibly broad impact on employers and workers, but there is still that focus on the real world, which can be messier and sticker than the relatively sterile laboratory of the justice system. In other words, success in this field requires a practical bent and a propensity to solve problems rather than win arguments.

For lawyers considering a career in labor and employment, it’s important to consider both the day-to-day mechanics of the practice and intrinsic rewards that it affords, and whether those fit in comfortably with the type of interpersonal and intellectual fulfillment they envision for their careers.

As the driving force behind the distinct SeyfarthLean business model, can you briefly tell us what it is and how it affects your associates' daily lives? 

SeyfarthLean essentially combines a number of disciplines and capabilities – process improvement, project management, and applications of legal technology – to help legal teams work differently.   The primary goal is to enhance client value by delivering better legal and business outcomes through a more consistent service experience.

Speaking more concretely, it means that our lawyers have a broader repertoire of tools and teammates to draw from in their work.  One way it affects associates’ daily lives is the opportunity to collaborate more deeply with colleagues across the firm environment who bring a higher degree of expertise and domain knowledge in their respective disciplines.  It’s not just a team of lawyers in a typical hierarchical structure with the partner sitting at the top of the pyramid. Associates are exposed to different team structures and in many cases have more opportunities to lead cross-functional teams.

A focus on smart, right-sized technology use is a key pillar of SeyfarthLean, so I think that affects associates’ lives as well. We’re committed to knitting together a technology environment that combines the best available tools and we consider types of technology intended to fully displace some types of legal tasks or intended to enable legal tasks by making them easier for our teams.

SeyfarthLean draws deeply from Lean Six Sigma and Lean, which both place a great deal of emphasis on process, so that’s something that carries over to associates’ daily lives.  We try to use process to make collaborative knowledge work more intuitive and transparent.  A key benefit of transparent processes is context – it helps more junior lawyers place their work and contributions within the larger context of the case.   In the best iterations, that means associates are given a better roadmap to success whenever they’re learning the ropes around a new practice area or a new type of legal matter.

Lastly, I think there are cultural ramifications.  On a daily basis, we try to keep the focus on our clients – their needs and their service experiences.  Starting with the very basic mechanics of service delivery like budgeting and time management to broader questions that dictate the strategy behind a legal project or a case, SeyfarthLean keeps us focused on the voice of the client.  Over time, I think that does shape how our associates view their individual role and contributions.