The Big Interview: Joe Ryan, Brown Rudnick managing partner

From artificial intelligence to social intelligence, Ryan gives us an insight into the Bostonian firm's strategy and his own legal career.

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

Joe Ryan: We are a firm of relatively modest size in today's size pecking order but our strategy is to compete at the highest level in the practice areas we feature. We are not a 2,000-lawyer firm so we are not offering every conceivable product. We are focused on those practice areas where we are either a market-leader or we think that we can and should be in a relatively short time. Those areas include corporate restructuring, white collar, government investigations and international disputes. Another area we feature is IP litigation, and on the corporate side a lot of the work we do is for technology companies, whether that's capital raising or strategic transactions, and the focus tends to be on medical devices and life sciences.

CA: Which practices have been performing well recently?

JR: We are very nimble and are able to move into new areas relatively quickly and easily: one area that has been very active in 2018 is relatively new but complements our IP orientation: cyber security and block chain. We are doing a lot of work in connection with crypto currencies. That work is not only transactional but also litigation. We are involved in a case in the Federal District Court which was a seminal case in terms of the intersection of securities law and initial coin offerings.

"Government investigations is an area that has grown dramatically for us."

CA: Are there any broader trends (whether political, economic, technological, sector-specific) that are currently shaping the volume or type of work conducted in your firm's practices?

JR: Crypto currencies is one such area – and it's an area of fascination for a lot of people. People are trying to figure out how to commercialise it. We are very innovative and creative so it's natural that we would be involved in that area – many of our clients are hedge funds for example that are always on the cutting edge, and looking for the next new opportunity for investment.

Government investigations is an area that has grown dramatically for us. Ten years ago we didn't have any presence in that space but we now have a team including lawyers in New York, DC, London, Southern California and Paris. It's really an area of pretty intense focus both by the Justice Department here in the US as well as in the UK: the authorities in the US and the UK and now more recently France have adopted a more rigorous anticorruption regime, which means companies with a connection to France, or the other jurisdictions, need to become conversant with and comply with these new regulations.

CA: Can you tell us about any developments at the firm over the past year that you would like our readers to know about?

JR: We have placed a lot of emphasis on diversity and inclusion in recent years. One of the things that we did is to establish a 1L social mobility and diversity fellowship, which is available to first-year law students who are the first in their family to graduate from college or university. The fellowship includes participation in our summer associate program as well as a scholarship of up to $22,500. We are very excited about the program and we are seeing some really extraordinary candidates early in their careers.

I think another thing that associates like about the firm is our focus on pro bono work. We are very oriented towards giving back to the communities in which we have offices, and really encourage associates to become involved in pro bono work. We offer a pretty wide variety of work including work in the immigration area (which is very topical), consumer bankruptcy, and civil rights. We also have a foundation through which we give grants to support inner city education and charitable institutions in the cities where we have offices.

We also offer to senior associates a training program to help them build their own practice and start to develop and build relationships with clients. It also covers how it's best to work collaboratively with colleagues. Associates like that because it makes them feel we are investing in their success as future partners and senior lawyers.

"Our European offices will continue to grow."

CA: Which practices/sectors/offices have you earmarked for growth over the next year and why?

JR: Paris is our newest office and we are about to bring on board a new restructuring team there. It's a really great team of lawyers who are multilingual. And they are all obviously licensed avocats in France, but some are also licensed in the UK which is typical of the lawyers in our London and Paris offices. Our European offices will continue to grow and another practice where we expect to see growth in the near term is the white-collar area, both domestically and in Europe. IP litigation is also an area where we are adding folks and we are also looking to grow our corporate and life sciences practices.

CA: What do you hope the firm will look like in five years' time?

JR: The way we think about our strategy is that we try to make sure we are building those practices where we are a recognized leader and are delivering high value to clients. We focus on what we need to do to provide those practices with the financial or personnel resources to maximize the opportunities. The answer changes over time. I already mentioned the current regulatory environment influencing the fact we are looking to expand our white-collar and government investigations work. If the regulators decide that they are going to deemphasize anti-corruption we would go more slowly in expanding the white-collar group. We base our strategy on our needs but there are obviously market forces that effect how you pursue your strategy.

"When I started practicing law I'd have 50 or 60 or 70 phone calls a day – now I have only a handful."

CA: How has the profession changed since you started practicing as a lawyer?

JR: Technological change and all of its ramifications have been huge. Those ramifications include the way we communicate: when I started practicing law I'd have 50 or 60 or 70 phone calls a day – now I have only a handful, because so much communication is by email and text. That's done a number of things to the practice: it's speeded it up in the sense clients are much more focused on responsiveness than when I started. Technology has also complicated the practice in the sense that documents and briefs all tended to be shorter than they are now because it wasn't so easy to change and edit them as it is now. The use of technology in the courtroom is also a dramatic change: there is now an ability to collect and analyze a huge amount of data, whether it's about your clients, your adversaries or similar cases.

We are seeing the growing use of analytical technological tools, whether predictive tools or tools that allow you to review in more detail the history of similar cases or transactions. There is going to be more and more use of artificial intelligence. While the legal industry is a very conservative one and we are bound by relatively strict ethical and regulatory regimes which I think sometimes makes change a bit slower, I think the pace of change will probably continue to accelerate and practicing law ten years from now will look very different.

"Sometimes as lawyers we tend to be a little abstract and hyper-focused on the teaching of particular cases."

CA: What's been the most valuable lesson you've learned in your career?

JR: One of the things I've learnt is how important people and personalities are – not only in terms of client relationships, but in order to get deals done and persuade courts and juries. Sometimes as lawyers we tend to be a little abstract and hyper-focused on the teaching of particular cases and where we think the market is in connection with certain transactional provisions. But being successful as a counsellor or advocate is very much about being a good listener and being able to understand the motivations, the agenda, and the history of the people you're dealing with.

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?

JR: First, I would emphasize the point I just made about the importance of social intelligence. Second, I would say that especially as a young lawyer it's important to learn as much as you can about all the different legal subjects you encounter. One of the temptations today is to be hyper-specialized. That can be very valuable but also very fragile in the sense that your hyper-specialty can become irrelevant depending on changes in the law. It also always helps to know the broader context of problems you are trying to solve: for example, if you are litigating the meaning of a bond indenture, it's important to understand why the provisions you are arguing over were created in the first place.

Interview conducted by Alex Radford. First published in February 2019. 

Find out what life is like as a junior associate at Brown Rudnick.