Is This What They Teach at Reed Smith University?

I first learned about “Reed Smith University” and the other Reed Smith approaches to the practice of law that led me to mention the firm frequently as an example of an innovative law firm from Denise Howell. Given that Denise is a pioneering lawyer blogger and widely-recognized lawyer in digital media, Internet and intellectual property areas, it made sense that she would be part of an innovative firm. I see now that, as usual, maybe it’s easier to talk the talk than walk the walk.
Saturday, I learned on Denise’s blog, Bag and Baggage, that Reed Smith had fired Denise. I’m revising my opinion of Reed Smith, drastically. As Carolyn Elefant suggests, Reed Smith has probably guaranteed that rather than being known as an innovator or a premier law firm, it will be known instead as “the firm that dumped Denise Howell, one of blawging’s greatest talents.” Probably not the marketing move any firm would like to make, eh?
You might note that Denise’s notes about Reed Smith University mentioned above appeared in The Industry Standard. This is the type of publicity in the type of industry publication that most law firms would kill for. Ironic, isn’t it?
[Disclosure: Denise is a co-founder and co-author with me of the Blawg Channel and Between Lawyers group blog projects and I don't even pretend to be objective in my comments. I have not talked with Denise, however, about this happening or the events underlying it. My opinions, as usual, are uniquely my own.]
As I’ve said elsewhere, I thoroughly recommend that you read Denise’s post announcing her departure because it is well-written, savvy and raises important issues for the legal profession.
I was struck immediately by the irony that, as an appellate lawyer, Denise would require excellent writing, analytical and organizational skills. These are exhibited in great abundance in her post, making Reed Smith’s decision to fire her even more inexplicable than it first appeared to me.
As a friend of mine – an excellent writer – said after reading Denise’s post – “why can’t I write something that good?” Indeed, I was involved in hiring at law firms for many years and I’d be willing to hire Denise as an appellate lawyer on the basis of seeing that post as a writing sample.
All of which leads to speculation about what Reed Smith is thinking.
Let me say first that law firms obviously can and will make business decisions, especially personnel decisions, for reasons they believe are in the best interest of the firm. Others, of course, are free to second-guess those decisions. It is certainly fair to reach Carolyn Elefant’s conclusion: “Because if you’re a talented woman planning on having kids, why in the world would you EVER choose to work there?”
I’ve been thinking about what lessons we might be able to learn from this situation in our increasingly interconnected and Internet-focused world.
Based on my experience in law firms, inexplicable firing decisions (and sometimes inexplicable hiring decisions) almost invariably result in people inside and outside the firm drawing one of three conclusions:
1. The firm is slimming down for a merger. One standard approach in a pre-merger setting is to strip away people who will not fit into the new entity. Often that may mean of counsel and other lawyers in non-traditional arrangements. Since Reed Smith has engaged in some merger activity recently and there were stories of another one “on the street” at the end of last year, you might reasonably conclude that something along those lines was involved. If you saw other departures or departures from another likely merger candidate, this theory would be reinforced. Even if nothing is in the works, this type of decision invite exactly that kind of speculation..
2. The firm simply made a bad business decision. Hey, law firms don’t always make good business decisions. I suspect that the negative economic and PR consequences of this move will far outweigh the savings from eliminating Denise’s salary. However, I agree with Denise’s assessment of the business acumen of the managing partner of Reed Smith, so I think this conclusion is less likely than #1. However, since Denise is the classic example of a person around whom to market an innovative or Law 2.0 approach, the decision seems to reflect a commitment to an “old school” practice of law. “Old school” may prove the best way to go, but I question the approach and think that signaling a commitment to an old school approach undercuts efforts like Reed Smith University. Ironically, the fact that Denise was an appellate lawyer who did a lot of brief writing and was incredibly tech savvy made her the perfect test case for innovative approaches to dealing with work that could have served the firm well as a model for the future.
3. The firm may be having financial problems. Almost any time an experienced lawyer gets fired, people start to wonder about the finances of the firm. I was a partner at a firm where we might have a partners’ meeting in which we learned that we were having our best financial year ever, but also make a decision to terminate an associate, and then would see the staff and other associates worry that the firm was about to padlock the doors and go out of business. It’s just the way people react today. One of the most interesting presentations I attended this year was given by Alan Rich of Thomson Elite on why law firms go out of business. It’s a thought-provoking presentation that had a lot of resonance for me. In most of the cases, you saw firms that were riding high closing their doors in remarkably short periods of time. In each case, there seemed to be one of more management decisions that, in retrospect, made no sense and reflected a decision to go with “business as usual” when business was no longer usual. I think that this is the least likely of the three conclusions, but I also think, based on my experience, that it will be the one that people spend the most time speculating about, especially if there is even one more departure. I don’t think that law firms give that result enough consideration these days before taking actions.
As I’ve said elsewhere, I’m flummoxed by this decision, but suggest that we all look at it for lessons that we can learn about how we deal with talented people with non-traditional approaches and how to retain them, and for lessons about how best to run a law firm. As my title says, I’m mainly left with this question: “Is this what they teach at Reed Smith University?”
[Originally posted on DennisKennedy.Blog (http://www.denniskennedy.com/blog/)]
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Comments

  1. Frequent Reader says

    This is very unlike you, Dennis. You have no information or insight into why they let Denise go, but you are quick to make the firm out to be at fault. It’s nice that you are on her side, but your blog is read by many and you need to maintain a professional focus.

  2. mark says

    You wrote: “The firm simply made a bad business decision.”
    I think you are probably wrong on that point without saying more. How much work did she generate for her firm as a result of her blog? Many of her posts are of a personal nature (family, child, etc) and each one is quite readable, but from a business context, I don’t see it.
    My guess is that the constant Pamploma-like dash for billable hours, staying ahead of the Bull got her gored. A 2 hour plus commute, a child, those go to the heart of what in the end is a heartless business … and billing and making money.
    Reed Smith probably made her keep the hours up. If she was a rainmaker, they probably tolerate the rest of any “so called” issues with mommy hood.
    In the end, the firing will be the best thing for her, her family, and her sanity, IMHO.
    BTW, Reed Smith is a big firm, and they can take the criticism from others.

  3. Dennis says

    Just a quick note:
    Both commenters seem to have attributed to me comments that specifically said were comments others were likely to make.
    Also, as a general rule, I’m much less interested in or persuaded by anonymous comments than “non-anonymous” comments.
    As far as having “no insight,” I sort of thought that 23 years of practicing law in a variety of firms and setting would give me some insight. Perhaps not.

  4. says

    It’s bizarre that “frequent reader” said that DK needs to “keep a professional focus.”
    What?
    Let’s try that again.
    A personal friend, frequent collaborator of DK is fired – and with no public explanation. It affects the public – particularly the blogging and blog-reading public – directly. This is like hearing Dan Rather (or Connie Chung, although Denise is more talented in my view than either one) is getting canned.
    If it’s not professional to write in stern tones about what a bad move it was, then what is?
    Tut-tutting?
    Hand-wringing?
    Dispassion?
    All of those are inappropriate. What IS appropriate is to start saying, in measured tones,
    “Gee. Reed Smith just made a poor business decision. Do you suppose it indicates a lack of resolve in meeting the future head-on, or does it presage mass firings? Is it related to a possible merger, or is this about boneheadedness?”
    If we can’t Monday-morning Quarterback Reed Smith for its action – when it remains silent and on the sidelines – then I don’t know what blogging is good for.