Can friendship, trust, and transparency beat a recession? At Holland & Hart, those values were at least a head start.
As large law firms across the country responded to a poor business climate with mass layoffs and deferred hiring over the past two years, Holland & Hart, a 400-lawyer Denver firm with offices throughout the West, has yet to lay off staff or shelve commitments to anyone.
“We saw the recession as an opportunity of a lifetime,” says Don Degnan, Holland & Hart’s intellectual property group chair. “We were going to be able to get our foot in the door with clients who typically go to D.C., L.A., and New York.”
The firm stayed on track with rates 40 to 60 percent lower than coastal competitors, high attorney retention, and expertise in areas like corporate and natural resources law. It has a first-tier national ranking in Best Law Firms for mining law. The firm also made some quick changes, cutting back on trips and retreats and reconnecting with clients—many of whom the attorneys count as friends.
“Before the end of 2008, we had really figured out what we needed to do to adapt to the new environment in a way that was consistent with our aims to protect our people and ride this out without compromising the culture and qualities of Holland & Hart,” says Steve Villano, the firm’s finance partner.
Cheerleaders. For long-term success, firm leaders saw bigger changes afoot. As of July 1, the firm has a dramatically revamped internal structure, the result of nearly a year’s worth of industry research and analysis. Three broad departments with overwhelmed leaders were broken into eight practice groups, including energy and commercial litigation. Now, group leaders must stay abreast of their respective industries while acting as coach, cheerleader, and prodder for fellow lawyers as needed in an attempt to stay closer to clients’ needs.
The revamped structure was implemented by the democratic management committee, which comprises Villano, managing partner Tom O’Donnell, chairman John Husband, a regional office representative, and three elected lawyers who represent the firm’s junior, middle, and senior members. All have an equal vote on decisions.
“It gets back to youthful leadership,” Degnan says. “That allows us to drive the decisions, instead of old white guys sitting around a table trying to milk this for the next five years.”
This sense of openness and trust is clearly pervasive at the firm. Collegiality is a word often thrown around; cross-pollination, too. Sound too good to be true in a law firm?
“You haven’t just walked into this Marxist world,” partner Scott Havlick notes with a laugh. “We’re all selfish people.” But “if you can eliminate competing with each other internally, you just have so much more energy to compete in the marketplace.”
Another energy boost at Holland & Hart is the mandatory sabbatical. Every five years, lawyers take three-month breaks, such as the worldwide trek during which partner Trip Mackintosh adopted an 11-year-old son from Zambia. For another partner, it was the chance to read 15 books. Regardless of the journey, the sabbaticals challenge the lawyers to excel out of the office and recharge for hard work, Mackintosh says.
But Holland & Hart attorneys don’t have to go far to decompress. The Rockies loom outside their office windows in Denver and Boulder, and all the attorneys can use the firm’s condos in Aspen and Steamboat Springs.
“We work hard, but we also understand that people have lives outside of work, too,” says Husband, the management committee chairman. “We live in a beautiful part of the country. People ski, and they hike, and they fish.”
Lawyers also use the landscape to cultivate unique client relationships, whether on backpacking excursions through the mountains or fishing trips to Alaska. They’re active in pro bono work, too.
“The people are true community trustees,” says Maureen McDonald of the Denver Metro Chamber Leadership Foundation, where 30 firm members have volunteered their time.
It’s an appealing balance for lawyers seeking a change. Though he now bills at a rate 40 percent less than he did in New York, King & Spalding transplant Larry Tronco says biking to work at Holland & Hart’s Boulder office and collaborating with peers more than makes up for it. “It’s night and day,” Tronco says of his switch. “I actually have a life here.”