The Big Interview: Jami McKeon, Morgan Lewis firm chair

Jami Mckeon Morgan Lewis

"We have succeeded in becoming a global elite brand," says Jami McKeon. In this wide-ranging interview the Morgan Lewis chair spells out exactly why, from diversity to lateral growth, she feels the firm is in a purple patch.

Chambers Associate: How would you describe the firm's current market position?

Jami McKeon: We’re really proud that we are generally recognized as one of the truly global, elite brands now. Statistically, we're ranked 8th in The American Lawyer's top-grossing firms. We're on the A-List, which recognizes not only high revenue, but also excellence in areas like pro bono and diversity. We jumped 26 places on the Acritas US Brands Index, and we're now at number 3, in the company of the likes of Skadden, Kirkland and Jones Day. I think we are regarded as having a rare combination of breadth and depth – we've continued to focus on being a relationship-firm, representing global clients broadly across industries who entrust us to handle their biggest matters as well as providing creative solutions to their everyday challenges. We have succeeded in becoming a global elite brand because we're focused not on growth for the sake of growth, but on finding the right talent who share our commitment to client service excellence, as well as collaborating and innovating across offices. Our clients know that wherever they go in the world, they can access our truly elite practitioners who work together across practices and time zones. That's why we've been gaining more and more market share.

CA: Which practices have been performing especially well recently?

JM: Every practice in our firm out-performed expectations in the past year. When you think about the size of our firm, we have a huge corporate practice, litigation, labor & employment, IP, plus a lot of regulatory expertise in practices like antitrust and investment management, and smaller practices like telecoms, FDA and structured finance etc. – all of these really performed to an extraordinarily high level. That was a pretty fantastic thing.

"We're never going to be the place that has a flag in every city, then lets those offices succeed or fail on their own."

In addition, we had a number of other highlights that are practice-related. For example, Grace Speights who is the head of our labor & employment group, was recently selected by The American Lawyer as Attorney of the Year. Over the past five years as we've continued to grow both our top and bottom line, we've made huge investments like our combination with Bingham in 2014, opening in Singapore in 2015, and later in Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Abu Dhabi. All of that growth has truly benefitted our clients, and therefore, the related practice teams have performed extraordinarily well. They are reinforced when we get the right people with the same approach to client service – as a result they do not just survive, but thrive.

CA: The firm has done a lot of lateral hiring recently – what's the reason behind this and will this continue?

JM: All of our growth is client-focused. We brought on more than 30 lawyers from McDermott in the IP area. We made a significant investment in our structured transactions practice adding talent from Sidley and Cleary. In labor & employment we brought in another team from Sidley. We had growth in our investment management areas, and in March we opened in Abu Dhabi. In London, we brought in a corporate trio from Herbert Smith Freehills, as well as two partners from Pillsbury. We've grown a lot, but we've never grown for the sake of growing. We really focus on building strength by attracting groups of elite talent that fit with what our clients need and also have synergies with existing Morgan Lewis teams. For example, we recognized that our platform needed to be stronger and deeper in Asia because we know that that the world is moving east. We had significant opportunities for growth in that area before we decided to bring on the talent that we did, but we waited for the right teams. Now we have them and they are succeeding at a very high level. We will continue to grow, but it’s about the right teams and the right combinations.

"We're one of the only firms with a formal remote working program enabling people to work from home two days a week using technology we supply. A third of the people enrolled in the program are men, and two thirds are women."

With the Bingham combination, which added 700 people, we did not pursue that opportunity because we wanted to be bigger. We did it because we looked at their practices and how they matched with ours. We were getting a market-leading telecom practice and a market-leading structured transactions practice and bringing on other practices that were additive or synergistic. The growth made sense. You can't just bolt on people and have it be successful. We're never going to be the place that has a flag in every city, then lets those offices succeed or fail on their own. We’re pretty happy with our footprint. That's not to say we won’t establish one or two new offices in the future, but we don't have a strategy or plan to randomly expand into five new countries or open five more offices in the US. Our focus is on where our clients want us to be and where we can find the most elite talent. In Abu Dhabi, for example, the lawyers we brought on are extremely well-connected in the sovereign wealth space – it made real sense to approach them, so we did. And they recognized how much more they could do on our platform.

CA: How important is diversity to your firm's strategy?

JM: Of course, it is extremely important. We are the largest firm in the world with a woman chair, so our credibility in this area is pretty solid! And it's not just me– a significant number of our practice group leaders are women: our heads of energy, labor & employment, and FDA practices just to name a few. We have office managing partners and leaders throughout the firm who are women. Diversity is very important to us because we really do believe that when you bring groups of people together from different backgrounds, you get better results. We're big on putting our money where our mouth is – we were one of the first firms to pilot the Mansfield Rule, we have scholarship and fellowship programs with law schools to create an early pipeline of diverse candidates, and we have a number of affinity groups.

"Firms have to have size and scale to compete. But size is only an advantage if you get everything else right."

There are also other things we do that are important for building and maintaining a diverse workforce that aren't necessarily obvious. We're one of the only firms with a formal remote working program enabling people to work from home two days a week using technology we supply. A third of the people enrolled in the program are men, and two thirds are women. We also have our Ramp Up program for when people come back to work from extended leave – they have six months to acclimate during which they have a reduced hours expectation in an effort to ramp them back up to their full time capacity. Plus, last year we made more women partners than any other AmLaw top 15 firm. When it comes to diversity you can really tell if an organization is walking or just talking, and we make it a real priority.

CA: What are the main challenges that law firms and their lawyers will have to navigate/adapt to in the future?

JM: There's a lot of them. Firstly, given how global the world is and how global corporate clients are, firms have to have size and scale to compete. But size is only an advantage if you get everything else right. You've got to really invest in people, in integration and collaboration, in client service, and in doing things that bring teams together. That takes time, effort, and commitment.

Cybersecurity is another challenge. There is tremendous cost associated with remaining current on cybersecurity issues, and a number of other firms have struggled because they don't have the scale to do that. That’s where we have an advantage. But technology itself is always changing – it's about how you leverage it. It is a constant thing you have to stay on top of.

"I had the opportunity to lead our combination with Bingham, which without question was game-changing – not just for our firm, but for the legal industry."

We are also really focused on well-being – we were one of the first firms to sign the American Bar Association’s wellness pledge. We have a Chief Engagement Officer who is responsible for all things engagement, well-being, and corporate social responsibility. We also have a new director of well-being and a diversity recruitment manager. We're very focused on giving people the tools to succeed both personally as well as professionally. The CEO of Deloitte was quoted recently about the importance of taking care of your people when they are your biggest asset, and I agree. As such, investing in well-being is really important. When you look at what is going on in the profession, you can see that it’s something that really needs to be focused on. This is a fantastic profession and career but where you practice makes all the difference.

CA: What do you consider to have been your big break?

JM: I think my big break was choosing to work for Morgan Lewis. I was very young and had no experience in the legal industry. I chose Morgan Lewis because I liked the people I met here most out of the firms I knew to be great firms. From the day I walked in the door I was given the tools to succeed. I tried my first case in my second year, and formed a client relationship that has spanned my career. It is an environment where we consider the competition to be outside the firm, not inside, and where everyone works to help you succeed. I had a lot of other breaks and opportunities along the way. I was a young partner when I was asked to lead the integration of the Brobeck lawyers into the firm in 2003. I moved to California and had the opportunity to work with dozens of new people and help shape the transition. Early in my career as chair of the firm, I had the opportunity to lead our combination with Bingham, which without question was game-changing – not just for our firm, but for the legal industry. I had confidence that the firm I knew so well could pull off that kind of strategic growth and do it well, and we did. I learned so much from each opportunity, but my big break was really joining the firm in the first place.

CA: What achievement are you most proud of?

JM: On the practice side, I'm proud of the fact that we have become an elite global brand. Our clients believe in us, and we're very proud of the talent we’ve developed and brought on to join our team.

I am also extremely proud of our unique record on pro bono. Last year we had 100% participation in our global pro bono program – every lawyer not only participated but met our 20-hour challenge. No other firm close to our size can say that. People claim that corporate lawyers don't do much pro bono, or that people outside the US don't do pro bono, but that is not our experience. This year, I'm proud that we're receiving the Allegiance Award from KIND [Kids In Need of Defense]. We’ve devoted over 11,000 hours to KIND cases over the years. Some of the children we’ve represented were as young as two years old, and facing the judicial system alone. I’m really proud of the commitment to community that all our offices have.

"Rely on your instinct. Place weight on what feels right to you, and the sense you get from a place when interviewing."

I’m most proud of the fact that Morgan Lewis is a great place to work with really great lawyers who are also really great people. We continue, even as we grow, to live up to the ML mantra – that there is no limit to what we achieve if no one cares about who gets the credit. There are not very many firms that can truthfully claim to live by the same motto.

CA: Looking back at your career and the knowledge you’ve gained, what advice would you give to students who are about to enter the legal profession?

JM: I would say it’s a fantastic profession, notwithstanding the hype about how stressful it is or how difficult it is, it really is a wonderful career to have. Your job is helping people. There’s a lot of autonomy and a lot of intellectual satisfaction – you should approach it with great enthusiasm and give it your best.

Based on my own experience, obviously do your research about firms and know the basic facts, but rely on your instinct. Place weight on what feels right to you, and the sense you get from a place when interviewing – it’s going to tell you a lot about what it’s like to work there. You spend most of your time in life with the people you work with, so it makes a difference if you work at a firm where people like to be. Don’t just accept an offer from the firm that offers you $10k more in the short run. Think about where you’re going to thrive, what firm is going to want you to thrive, and what firm is going to invest in you.


Interview conducted by Natalie Bertram. March 2019.


Read our review of life as a junior associate at Morgan Lewis.