The Big Interview: Tom Reid, Davis Polk managing partner

Reid shares the secret behind Davis Polk's respectful culture, looks at the challenges facing the legal market, and stages a spirited defense of 'face-time requirements.'

Tom Reid Davis PolkChambers Associate: How would you characterize Davis Polk's market position in 2018, heading into 2019?

Tom Reid: Davis Polk is in ten cities across the world practicing four different types of law, and we're present not just in the core areas of M&A and financing but regulatory, asset management and more. We've got a very strong tax department that does a lot of standalone work as well as corporate support. In litigation we have an unparalleled white collar practice and a strong civil litigation team with clients ranging from Wall Street banks to other law firms. Our IP practice is also going from strength to strength, as is our insolvency team.

There's obviously room for improvement in everything we do, but I wouldn't swap our capability in any practice area with that of another firm. The challenges we face aren't because we're losing market share but because the market as a whole is declining. With the financial crisis now behind us litigation has fallen, but it hasn't been a problem for us. Coming to the close of 2018 the question is not if this will be a record year but, by how much it will be.

CA: So what are the main challenges that law firms will have to adapt to looking forward?

TR: As clients and technology evolve we're making sure we're dealing with the most sophisticated and complex problems effectively. Clients now have outstanding lawyers in large in-house legal divisions, and the key to success is working with them and finding out not how we replace them, but complement them. On our largest projects we're working with other firms and we're expected to know how one another work to cooperate for the client's benefit. We're well-positioned for this evolution as we make sure all our partners are aware that what's best for the client is best for the firm.

"A lot of thinkpieces are suggesting that technology will render us obsolete. I certainly don't think that will be the case."

Lawyers don't tend to be great business people or technologists, and a lot of thinkpieces are suggesting that technology will render us obsolete. I certainly don't think that will be the case. The trick to adapting is not looking for a gigantic market changing app, but making sure not to miss any of the little pixels that are emerging on the screen of change so you don't miss the whole picture. It's a game you've got to play patiently.

CA: Davis Polk has a reputation for professionalism and good manners, which associates emphasized during our interviews. What's the secret to keeping this culture consistent?

TR: That's a great question and one I spend a lot of time considering, because it's quite ephemeral. I've got to do my part and talk from the top, but the biggest guarantee of continued professionalism and respect at Davis Polk is focusing on how we recruit people. We've got all the brightest and best candidates to consider so what we look for is how people interact in groups. Recruiting for that quality is paramount.

Another aspect of it goes back to technology – we try to enable remote working by associates via technology stipends and don't insist that they be in the office at all times. Whether it's a family emergency or the cable guy coming over, we take a flexible approach. However, people talk about firms having 'face time requirements' and we unashamedly do. It's not measured, that would be silly, but we believe that another way culture is transferred is by speaking to colleagues and learning through personal interaction.

"The Davis Polk office is a fun place to be, and if you have to work then why not do it around other people?"

Maybe in 100 years time that'll sound like the approach of a dinosaur but I don't think it will. You can work remotely and be a great lawyer but the more senior you become the more important it is to build an advisory skillset. Anybody who's been to law school and has access to our resources can give technical answers to questions, but we prize ourselves on giving judgments. Those are all about nuance and understanding dynamic situations, and there's no better way to learn that than watching human beings do it in real life. The Davis Polk office is a fun place to be, and if you have to work then why not do it around other people? Associates do their best here when they enjoy the social interaction that comes with being part of the firm.

CA: Why is law an attractive profession for students to join today?

TR: Over the last ten years the financial professions have had to consider existential questions – whether that's about the hammering bankers' reputations took after the financial crisis or the invasive regulation that's now affected life at banks. Private equity too has taken a reputational hit. But the legal profession hasn't, as we've been the butt of jokes since the days of Shakespeare at least.

I also think that younger people today are so impressively focused on wanting their workplace to have a higher purpose than the work, and the law can provide that. Getting to solve problems for a client, whether you're working for big money spenders or doing pro bono, makes coming to work in law very attractive for the 20-somethings of today.

CA: When did you decide to become a lawyer? Why?

TR: I made the decision in my late teens while living in the UK. I was the first lawyer in my family – others had gone into medical or educational careers. Most lawyers think of themselves as trial lawyers first: I wanted to be a barrister until I came to New York and decided I was more suited to transactional work. I can't pinpoint the time I chose that route... it was probably some random Tuesday!

"We've been the butt of jokes since the days of Shakespeare at least."

CA: What achievement are you most proud of?

TR: Being managing partner of Davis Polk. It's the finest law firm in the world and to have that responsibility is truly humbling. I feel like I need to earn it every day, and if it remains that daunting then it's something I should continue to be very proud of.

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 industry?

TR: Bear in mind that being a great lawyer is not about graduating top of your class in law school. That's a great start, but it needs to be built upon through years of learning your craft and becoming a technical expert. Then it all changes again over time.

While it's important to be technically sound and agile and efficient working with modern technology, to build a long and rewarding career the skill that will help you most is getting to know your clients as people and getting to know their business. Become a trusted adviser so you can approach problems in as well-rounded a way as possible. Keep yourself open to learning about people and businesses: another reason why law is such a great profession is that there aren't many others where relationships and trust are as important. With the trust of clients, you'll get to know their businesses so well.

First published February 2019. Interview conducted by Michael Bird.

Read more about Davis Polk in our Inside View feature.