McNees Family Values: Insights from the Front Office

Tuesday, January 24, 2017 - 22:17

By David Kleppinger, Chairman of McNees Wallace & Nurick

With 135 top-tier lawyers and 275 staff members, the law firm of McNees Wallace and Nurick is similar to any large business, but with one significant difference.

Unlike any other company, all of our shareholders live in the same firm with the chairman, and a large majority of them in the same building.

That proximity means shareholders can come into my office at any time of the day to tell me they need anything from a new computer screen to a new career.

That close physical proximity has led to an intellectual and emotional closeness that has garnered us recognition as one of Central Penn Business Journal’s, “Best Places to Work” for seven of the last 10 years during which I have served as Chairman. The fact that this distinction comes from a blind survey is a feat that we look back on with pride.

Many people ask me what our secret sauce is.

Actually, it’s a variety of sauces, slathered on the finest cut.

Since joining McNees in 1980 leading practice groups and committees, serving on the Management Committee since 2001, and as chairman of the Firm since 2006, I have witnessed textbooks full of outstanding law and courtrooms full of talented lawyers. 

Because McNees is the only firm I’ve ever worked for in my 36-year career, I listen closely to what attorneys and staff say when they approach us from other firms. Their reasons for wanting to come here reflect a litany of occupational and personal frustrations that we work hard to never replicate.

One of my favorite ways to “check in” with our new hires is at the 90-day mark. We meet in my 5th floor office overlooking the Susquehanna, but it is not an evaluation; it is our way of tracking whether we are meeting their expectations and if there is anything we can do better or differently. It is one of the ways we keep the lines of communication open and build that sense of family that pervades our culture.

Just recently, our 90-day check-in meeting dissolved into unexpected tears when a brand-new female attorney spotted a bevy of McNees lawyers at a funeral for a family member of hers. That one snapshot in empathy for someone they barely knew is an invisible but axiomatic part of the McNees culture.  

Defying many outsiders’ perspectives of law firms as stodgy, hierarchical, and hyper-competitive, in a cutthroat world of mahogany, marble, and the perpetual chase for billable hours, we are a cross-section of society, and as such, we have the same issues and emotions as society. 

Consider that soon after I started my term on Nov. 1, 2006, 10 years ago, the Big Recession crippled the economy with a vengeance. This economic crisis completely changed the landscape of law.  In fact, nothing has ever been the same since 2008. Before 2008, lawyers exercised a much greater measure of control over the attorney-client relationship. Demand for our services was growing, prices could be raised more easily, and the marketing of our services was not a constant, everyday need. Now with social media, the omnipresent tether of 24/7 technology, and lingering post-recessionary pressures, we had to take a step back and say “We need to do things differently.”

We were compelled to become more efficient than we already were. We needed to spell out the uncertainties to our clients better so they felt they were getting optimal value for their buck. 

We recognized that our clients, many of whom were highly successful in their own right, are increasingly sophisticated in law. They want speedy responses if they email an attorney with an emergency at 11 p.m., call her on her cell phone at the crack of dawn, or Skype from the West Coast at 8 p.m. Eastern Standard Time. 

The 2008 recession also precipitated a decline in demand for outside legal services. Many firms opted for in-house counsel to manage their own recessionary money woes. 

Thanks to the high-quality client base, we were able to weather the 2008 storm without ever laying off one “family” member or slashing compensation. In fact, while many other large law firms were wracked with painful mass layoffs, we increased our head count and compensation to our staff and were able to hire four to five law school graduates each year.   

We also made a conscious effort to take a more proactive role in government affairs. In my legal career, I represented large consumers of energy, such as hospitals, universities, pharmaceutical companies, the steel industry, and paper companies. Gaining a growing awareness of how legislation could play a vital role in helping our clients, we dove head first into community, public service, and government affairs.

I became a board member and chair of the Foundation for Enhancing Communities, and had the honor to lead the United Way Campaign and chair its board. We are also active in the PA Chamber of Business, where I currently serve as First Vice Chair, and Industry and the state and local Bar Association. Most recently, I was appointed by Gov. Wolf to the 38-member PSU Board of Trustees through 2019.  

This is a departure from our historical stance, where we were traditionally more low-profile and apolitical. We formed a political action committee and decided to appear in settings that are valuable to our clients, like PA Society weekend in New York City, and receptions with the governor, the Senate President Pro Tem and Majority Leader, and the House Speaker and Majority Leader and other key government leaders. We often see our clients there, breaking bread with our legislators and building relationships. 

In the past 10 years, McNees has also expanded our legal footprint dramatically from Harrisburg to Columbus, Ohio and Lancaster. Without damaging our community presence by cherry-picking from other firms, we were fortunate to find lead practitioners in a myriad of practice areas in those offices – excellent talent who approached us first. 

Part of that expansion has to do with the way we hire a new McNees team member.

When we look to hire, we perform an initial assessment: will this prospective employee share our values and become part of the McNees culture? We don’t look for the bombastic and arrogant. We look for a fit. 

We search for candidates who reflect the values we identify in our mission statement, people who are open, inclusive, and of high integrity, and who act with dignity. We are not necessarily looking for the whiz kid who graduated first in his class from Harvard Law. Our attorneys need superlative interpersonal skills, because those basic skills are the core of the lawyer-client relationship.

Admittedly, we know that there are a lot of outstanding lawyers in Pennsylvania. We don’t have them all, but I can say with unmitigated confidence that all of our lawyers are outstanding.

When most attorneys come to their 90-day check-in with me, they say, “I wish I came here sooner. I wouldn’t practice anywhere else.”

To me, that feedback is as coveted as the Willie Mays jersey that hangs on my wall, as a gift from my son.

We also try to help our attorneys strive for work-life balance, or “integration,” as we call it. 

Yes, the first three years in a large, top-notch firm can be difficult. For many of our lawyers, this is their first job. Unquestionably, the law is high-stress and high-anxiety. Fortunately, everyone here is rowing in the same direction. We are a team of support, where no one is an island. 

Even though most of my “typical” days are filled with meetings — assuming there are no emergency meetings -- every day we endeavor to be three fundamental things: inclusive, communicative and collaborative. If we do these three things well, everything else falls into place.

My advice to new attorneys at our orientation sessions is always the same: this is a marathon, not a sprint. Something that happens today won’t determine your future forever. Don’t take short-cuts to win the 100-yard sprint. It will backfire and ruin relationships. Take the long view.

Second, think about what are your differentiators. What is special about you that would make a client want to work with you? What is your X-factor? Build that brand.

That intangible asset, so much ingrained into the ornamented woodwork and glossy tiles of the McNees culture and family, is the evidence behind our success.