‘This is a contact sport’: Reed Smith’s Sandy Thomas on effective Big Law leadership


(Reuters) - Alexander “Sandy” Thomas, who was just elected to his third four-year term as global managing partner and executive committee chair of 1,600-lawyer Reed Smith, sees two essential traits of an effective law firm leader.

First, he said, “Be a good listener.”

And second, “Be able to articulate the direction of the firm with a tremendous degree of clarity – and then repeat and repeat.”

Appropriately, he’s got a ready answer about where Reed Smith will concentrate what he calls its “talent, time and treasure” as the firm embarks on a new four-year plan. The focus will be on developing capabilities in five core industries, he said: financial services; life sciences and health; energy and natural resources; transportation; and entertainment and media.

That’s a wide net -- but compared to some Big Law leaders who seem loathe to imply any scrap of business is less important, it’s practically a laser-like focus.

Originally an antitrust specialist, Thomas took the helm of Reed Smith in 2013 after cutting his teeth in management as chair of the global regulatory practice.

As one might expect, heading the Pittsburgh-founded firm – which now employs 3,300 lawyers and staff in 30 offices across 10 countries, with revenue of $1.31 billion in 2020 – “is pretty much a full-time job,” he told me.

It’s meant giving up almost all of his personal legal practice. At the same time, he said, he spends more time interacting with and listening to clients, often in the company of his colleagues, than ever before. He calls it “the best part of the job” as managing partner.

But to him, leadership also means resisting the temptation to hog the spotlight. Instead, he tries to let his fellow lawyers shine. “You have to be in the practice of putting other people in front. Clients and colleagues deserve the credit.”

For the first time since the onset of the pandemic, Thomas is now back on the road, paying in-person calls to clients in the U.S. with hopes to head overseas soon.

Reed Smith’s offices are “for the most part” now open, he said, with a “hard opening” scheduled for the firm's 17 U.S. offices in early September.

The return may actually prove more fraught than the closing.

“Law firms,” Thomas noted dryly, “can analyze things for a long time if given the time to do it.”

The imperative to work remotely occurred over the course of about two days in March 2020. There was no time to agonize over the details.

In retrospect, Thomas is glad.

“We all leaped into a different way of working and going about our daily lives,” he said. “I’d rather it happened that way than if we’d had a lot of lead time.”

(What? Surely, he’s not suggesting lawyers can get hung up on details, contingencies, possibilities and worst-case scenarios? No, that definitely doesn’t sound like anyone I know.)

For the September 7 re-opening, he said, Reed Smith is taking it slow, mindful of people’s needs to arrange childcare and generally re-acclimate to working in-person.

But it won't just be a return to the old days. The firm is offering a new, flexible work policy for lawyers and staff.

Per the firm's announcement last month, lawyers will not be required to work a certain number of days in the office.

However, they are expected to "maintain some routine physical presence in the office," and to show up for client and team meetings, office events, training sessions and practice group meetings.

Pandemic aside, with eight years under his belt leading Reed Smith, what are some of the biggest changes in the Big Law landscape he’s observed since 2013?

Topping his list is the pressure to “attract, retain and develop talent.”

It’s not as if that wasn’t an issue eight years ago, but from where he sits, Thomas said it has “constantly gotten more intense, for sure.”

At the same time, there’s increasing client-side pressure to “deliver the best-quality work at the best price.”

That’s a tough needle to thread.

Promoting diversity also feels more urgent.

Thomas noted that he was a member of Reed Smith’s first diversity committee, formed around the year 2000.

“In some sense, the desire to diversify talent within the firm has been important for at least that long,” he said. “But in terms of the degree, we are in a different place today.”

In response to the social unrest in the wake of George Floyd’s killing in May of last year, Reed Smith created a Racial Equity Action Plan, or REAP, as well as a task force to advance recruitment, retention and leadership opportunities for the firm’s Black lawyers and staff. The firm also now provides 50 billable hours of credit to all timekeepers for work done on diversity, equity and inclusion projects.

Cybersecurity is also increasingly pressing. “You can hardly pick up a newspaper” without hearing of a new breach, he noted. Though Thomas added that because Reed Smith has so many clients in the financial services industry, which was in the vanguard of recognizing cyber threats, the firm by extension also got “a head start on understanding what to do to maintain the best security.”

Looking ahead to the next four years, he stresses the importance of client service.

“This is a contact sport, a relationship-based sport,” he said. “We’re in a service business.”

He repeated it twice more for good measure. “It’s a service business. It’s a service business,” he said. “It’s not about us, it’s about our clients.”

(By Jenna Greene)

Opinions expressed are those of the author. They do not reflect the views of Reuters News, which under the Trust Principles, is committed to integrity, independence and freedom from bias.

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Opinions expressed are those of the author. They do not reflect the views of Reuters News, which, under the Trust Principles, is committed to integrity, independence, and freedom from bias.

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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