Beyond cold hard cash, warm fuzzies are the way to a lawyer's heart, firm chair says

(Reuters) - Working in Big Law should be about more than just the paycheck.

Or at least that’s the hope of Mayer Brown chair Jon Van Gorp, who just marked one year at the helm of the 1,850-lawyer, Chicago-based firm.

I tend to be skeptical when firm leaders extol the virtues of their culture, but Van Gorp has taken tangible, personal steps with the aim of making lawyers and staff across 27 offices and 12 countries feel connected, from internal podcasts to hand-written notes to a weekly newsletter that includes recipes and pet photos.

“We're not keeping employees just based on winning the arms race in compensation,” he told me, though Mayer Brown has matched its competitors at the top of the associate pay scale. Equity partners in 2021 took home an average of $2.47 million, placing the firm in the middle of the Am Law 100.

Law “is a people business above everything else,” Van Gorp continued, and retaining talent is key – creating an environment where lawyers and staff feel rooted “to bloom where they’re planted,” as he put it, rather than decamping for greener pastures.

Associate attrition across the legal sector hit an all-time high in 2021 according to a recent report by the NALP Foundation for Law Career Research and Education, soaring from 16% turnover in 2020 to 26% in last year.

Some attrition of course is natural, even desirable – but at this level it becomes costly and disruptive.

Van Gorp said Mayer Brown’s turnover is below the industry average. Still, he’s keen on using the firm’s culture as glue to keep its lawyers from wanting to leave.

The question is how. It’s one thing to create a distinctive culture in a small, single-office firm where all the lawyers know each other. But in a big firm, how do you make the work experience “not just a transactional relationship,” as Van Gorp put it?

Communication and transparency are key, he said.

A specialist in structured finance (Chambers USA calls him “The godfather in mortgage-backed securities”), Van Gorp since his elevation to chair in June 2021 has become the de facto face of the firm. He succeeded Paul Theiss, who served as chair for nine years and has returned to corporate practice.

Externally, Van Gorp is journalist-accessible – something that in my 25 years of chronicling the profession has become increasingly uncommon among Big Law chairs. But he’s been all over the legal trade press, whether granting interviews (hello!), writing book reviews or otherwise offering insights.

He’s active in the community of law leaders as well, giving the keynote address at the conclusion of the Law Firm Management Program at Fordham University School of Law last month.

Internally, he co-hosts two podcasts available for all Mayer Brown employees. In “Tools of the Trade,” he and London-based partner Sally Davies offer professional tips on topics such as how to get a promotion, how to cultivate client relationships and the secrets of networking.

It’s the kind of wisdom that Van Gorp said partners might traditionally have shared one-on-one with their mentees.

“We thought we might as well give everyone in the firm the benefit of the knowledge,” he said.

In “The Monthly Check-in,” which Van Gorp said is modeled after NPR’s “Car Talk,” he and managing partner Jeremy Clay recap the monthly partners’ meeting and share goings-on at the firm. They also take questions. (“We look for the toughest ones,” he said.)

The podcasts, which run 20 to 30 minutes, are delivered directly to employees’ phones.

“We didn’t want another Zoom or Teams meeting,” Van Gorp said. Instead, the recordings are something he figures people can listen to while, say, doing the dishes or commuting.

Van Gorp also keeps in touch via a weekly newsletter each Friday. In addition to firm news, it includes “interviews” with the pets of Mayer Brown employees (Van Gorp has a Wheaten Terrier named Eloisewho has yet to be featured). Firm employees also share family recipes from around the world.

“We’re trying to make the place more personable,” he said, noting “how much emotion and passion and a piece of themselves that people put into their work.”

He also has an old-school way of conveying praise and appreciation: handwritten notes that (gasp) he puts in an envelope and mails.

“In a world with so many texts and emails, putting the thought onto the written page feels meaningful,” he said.

To be sure, one person can’t determine a mega firm’s culture. But as chair, Van Gorp sets the tone at the top, with small touches that supplement and reinforce wider firm initiatives in areas such as ESG, diversity and wellness.

As he put it in his May 13 keynote address at Fordham, he wants firm lawyers and staff “to feel like they’re part of a community of support” -- and to “feel proud when they mention to their friends ‘I work for this law firm.’”

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Jenna Greene writes about legal business and culture, taking a broad look at trends in the profession, faces behind the cases, and quirky courtroom dramas. A longtime chronicler of the legal industry and high-profile litigation, she lives in Northern California. Reach Greene at jenna.greene@thomsonreuters.com