Ken Doran served as Gibson Dunn's chairman and managing partner for nearly 20 years. We caught up with him at the end of his tenure to talk about the firm's strategy and trends in the legal market.
Could you describe the firm’s market position in three sentences or less? Which firms would you identify as your biggest competition?
We are well-positioned in the world’s major financial centers. We represent blue chip clients across a wide range of industries—including technology, energy, media and entertainment, retail, automotive, hospitality, healthcare, and transportation—on their most challenging problems (disputes and government investigations) and transformative transactions. Our litigation, labor & employment, white collar & investigations, and corporate governance practices are best-in-class globally; our market-leading transactional practices are also exceptionally strong, particularly in M&A, private equity, real estate, capital markets and finance.
As for the second question, we compete with other global, top-ranked firms who are focused on the high end of the market. In different markets and in different practice areas, we also compete with boutiques or specialty firms. Beyond that, I believe that Gibson Dunn is unique in how we combine cutting-edge legal work with a core commitment to pro bono service and a respectful, inclusive culture that values and fosters diversity.
Our financial stability, as evidenced by 24 straight years of year-over-year revenue growth, is also unmatched. It is a tribute to the strength of our global platform, our strong brand, our strategy, and, most importantly, the initiative and creativity of our extraordinary lawyers and dedicated staff coupled with the culture that binds us together. There are very few, if any, law firms, and very few organizations in any industry, that can claim a similar record of sustained performance, particularly through the unprecedented financial turmoil and volatility that we have experienced in the last 30 years and the global pandemic that we’re currently facing head-on.
What is the firm’s strategy for the next five years?
At a very high level, we are focused on two things: maintaining excellence across the board – in terms of our clients, our work product, and our people – and maintaining our culture, which fosters collaboration, collegiality, and teamwork. We do not undertake mergers but, instead, grow strategically and organically through junior associate development and targeted lateral hiring (at both the associate and partner level). Over the next five years, we will continue to hire the very best legal talent, develop new practice areas to match our clients’ needs, and embrace new technologies that offer efficiencies. For example, we’ll continue to build our privacy, cybersecurity, Artificial Intelligence (“AI”), and ESG practices, while investing in and strengthening our already market-leading litigation and transactional practices. We are open to exploring new offices but at the moment we have no near-term plans to add to our 20-office, global platform.
We will also continue to perform groundbreaking pro bono work and take on matters that have a profound effect on our society. I am proud that this work has branded Gibson Dunn as a champion for social justice, civil rights, the rights of women, immigrants, and veterans, free speech, and racial equity. As lawyers, we have a special ability, and indeed duty, to influence and impact society, in the courts and through leadership in institutions that promote and uphold the rule of law and civil rights. We fully intend to uphold that sacred responsibility.
Finally, we will continue to promote diversity and inclusion in our firm, in the legal industry, and in the broader society in which we live. Working with our clients, we advocate for an inclusive society that recognizes each person’s dignity regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, physical abilities, religious beliefs, or political views. This has always been our strategy and I believe it will continue to lead us to success.
What is the greatest challenge facing the firm in the next decade? How about the legal market more generally?
The greatest challenge facing Gibson Dunn is the rapid pace of technological advancement, which I believe has been the principal driver of change in the legal profession for almost my entire legal career. Technology has transformed both the practice and business of law by globalizing it. This is a positive, as it opens up new frontiers (geographically and substantively), but it also requires that we, as a firm, evolve so that we are able to tackle problems the world-over, or to coordinate simultaneous work from many locations on a single matter that spans the globe.
Technology has also made the practice of law immensely more efficient, so much so that alternative legal service providers or even artificial intelligence programs can now perform some of the work that used to be reserved for large law firm associates. We are fortunate to have a platform known for top-quality, premium legal work and we must continue to offer this highest-echelon of thoughtful, creative, and bespoke service while embracing technological advances that might make us more valuable to our clients.
As the world evolves and our clients’ needs change, our attorneys must also continue to learn new practice areas and develop new expertise.
How important is the changing of a political administration? How would a change in president affect the firm?
When a political administration changes, it presents new opportunities to any firm and to the legal market in general. From a business perspective, a change in focus and political orientation for the new administration will no doubt generate a need for advice and direct representation in myriad sectors. On a human scale, we may welcome back colleagues who left for public service and may say goodbye to others (keeping them part of the Gibson Dunn community). We look forward to working with the Biden-Harris Administration and to helping our clients navigate any changes that it might enact.
Which practice areas/sectors does each of the of the firm’s main domestic offices specialize in?
Gibson Dunn prides itself on a “one-firm” approach to practice. We routinely work across geography and practice areas to provide cutting edge and seamless client service. Many of our matters are staffed across multiple offices and our clients are often guided by partners working in tandem from different geographies. Some of our offices may have more partners specializing in certain areas (tech and life sciences in the Bay Area; energy in Houston or Denver; or government contracts in Washington, DC, for example), but none of our offices is a satellite and none is limited by the market in which they sit.
How has the firm weathered the pandemic?
As we did during the 2008–2011 economic recession, the so-called “Great Recession,” we prioritized our people. Once we suspected that our offices might be closed to all but a skeleton crew, we shifted into high gear to seamlessly transition our entire workforce to a working from home (WFH”) protocol.
Unlike some other firms, we have not conducted pandemic-related layoffs or reductions-in-force and made sure to honor our commitments to our newest firm members. We paid our summer associates for the length of a full summer program while holding a truncated, virtual summer program that still provided many opportunities for mentoring, fun, and real-world experience. Similarly, we offered all of our incoming new associates the option of starting with us in 2020. Finally, even with uncertainty in the market, we continued to recruit lawyers to bolster some of the practices that saw a surge in business, including our capital markets, real estate, and business restructuring and reorganization practices. We came out of the last recession stronger because we continued to invest in our people, and I believe we’ll do the same once this pandemic is over.
On the client-service side, at the beginning of the pandemic and the WFH protocol we very quickly created a multidisciplinary global task force to assist our clients with the many novel challenges that they faced, bringing together partners and associates in disparate practices to brainstorm resources across varied business streams. We also provided frequent client alerts tackling the pandemic’s disruptions from all angles.
Finally, we recognized that at a time when we face a nearly constant onslaught of tragic news, unprecedented challenges to rule of law and democratic principles, and a pandemic ravaging communities of color, that it is more important than ever for Gibson Dunn to stand for what is right – to be on the right side of history. We established ourselves as a legal first responder of sorts, undertaking impressive work on behalf of small businesses and nonprofits (most owned by women and/or minorities) and engaging meaningfully in racial justice and equity work that attacks some of the most important issues of our time. In doing so, I believe we provided our attorneys an opportunity to truly make a difference and also furthered our brand and reputation as a firm that stands for equality and justice.
As a firm, we rose to the challenges presented by COVID-19 and have continued to thrive in the face of it. With that said, I very much hope for a return to normalcy in 2021. Our hearts go out to those around the world, including members of the Gibson Dunn family, who have lost loved ones during this pandemic.
Does the firm have any set targets with regards to diversity? What policies are in place/what new policies is the firm implementing to ensure that the firm meets these targets?
Gibson Dunn’s unique culture is one of our greatest strengths, and I this strong culture is largely influenced by our long-standing commitment to diversity and inclusion. We believe that diversity among our attorneys is essential to our continued success as one of the leading law firms in the world, and as such, our ongoing objective is to hire, retain and promote a workforce that reflects the demographics of the communities in which we work and reside.
We likewise work extremely hard to ensure that our diverse lawyers can look upward to see themselves reflected in leadership across the firm. Our holistic approach to executing our diversity goals includes both macro measures like providing substantive diversity training programs and expanding our benefits offerings, and micro efforts like providing professional development and coaching opportunities for our diverse attorneys. We also work alongside our clients and community partners to amplify our efforts. We are constantly refining our strategies to address the constantly shifting paradigms around diversity and inclusion, and are excited to elevate our efforts moving forward.
It is worth noting that our collective efforts in championing diversity and inclusion are now more important than ever during these challenging times. Whether through our hiring, retention, and promotion efforts, or through the Firm’s Racial Justice & Equity Initiative, we are committed to doing our part to advancing diversity and inclusion in the legal industry and beyond.