Introduction: David Kleppinger has served as chairman of 135-lawyer McNees Wallace & Nurick for more than 10 years. In a piece he recently wrote for Metropolitan Corporate Counsel (see online location), he provided an eloquent description of the McNees family culture and what that means to him and the firm’s attorneys and staff. He agreed to elaborate in an interview. His responses have been edited for length and style.
MCC: How has the lawyer-client relationship changed over the past decade?
Kleppinger: I’d characterize it as a healthy change. Clients were much more deferential to their attorneys in terms of pricing, delivery and strategy of the service. Now they are far more proactive in the entire relationship, extending from price to predictability to partnering with their attorneys on outcomes, to the desire, at least on the corporate side, for administrative ease in billing. It’s a more client-driven relationship. That’s a healthy change.
MCC: What challenges do you face in maintaining a family-style atmosphere given the changes in the lawyer-client relationship and the profession generally?
Kleppinger: As any firm grows, maintaining that family atmosphere is a challenge. Growth in and of itself presents challenges, but layered on top of that is the amount of turnover in personnel, multiple generational differences within our workforce – that applies to attorneys and staff – and the much higher level of lateral attorney hiring than there was even 10 years ago. We try to evaluate potential laterals, first and foremost, on our values and our culture, as opposed to their economics. The first test for us is whether the person is going to be a good cultural fit. If so, we’ll get to the economics. If the first question isn’t answered satisfactorily, we don’t care about the economics.
MCC: How do you envision the firm changing over the next five to 10 years?
Kleppinger: I don’t want it to change at all in terms of our value structure and culture. The culture, however, has to evolve as the marketplace evolves and matures. There is a much heavier reliance on technology, on telecommuting, on legal project management (LPM), knowledge management (KM), alternative fee arrangements (AFAs) – the alphabet soup, if you will, of change across the legal community.
MCC: How different are the challenges facing the firm now than they were a decade ago?
Kleppinger: The pace of change has accelerated. Technology has played a big role in that. The competitive pressures are very different, whether it’s competition from non-lawyer professionals or, as it is in some of our practice areas, from engineers, accountants, financial planners, insurance brokers. They all have aspects of their jobs that once were handled only by attorneys. Obviously, the internet is a competitive challenge, with virtual law firms and artificial intelligence demanding that we be more efficient. Those challenges are very different from the challenges we faced 10 years ago.
MCC: How are these changes affecting the lawyer-client relationship? I’m thinking of technology such as the Blackberry and now our ubiquitous smart phones and their impact on communications.
Kleppinger: Client expectations on responsiveness are far higher. You’re connected to clients 24/7. Clients are mostly respectful of one’s personal time, but they also know that if they have to, they can reach their attorney on a 24/7 basis, and we want to be available on that basis. Fortunately, our clients understand when to call upon us and when it’s not quite an emergency. Every attorney has had a situation where a client calls and says, “Did you see my email?” “When did you send it,” the attorney says. “Five minutes ago.” It’s as if the attorney is just sitting there waiting for the client‘s email and wasn’t doing anything else. Even email is too slow now. Clients are texting us. The expectations are that much higher.
MCC: What’s the one unique trait of the firm that remains unchanged?
Kleppinger: It follows from the last question. Something I hope that speed hasn’t changed is the personal relationships we have with our clients. Those can’t be developed solely with technology. We make every effort to visit our significant clients on an annual and a non-billable basis. The personalized nature of our service is a unique trait that remains unchanged. We can continue to differentiate ourselves by our close personal ties to the decision-makers of our clients
MCC: What is the most critical management issue facing law firms today? How has that changed over the years?
Kleppinger: I’ll break it into two parts: an internal management issue and an external management issue. Internally, the critical management issue I face daily is figuring out how we can continue to have the inclusive environment we do at a time when things are moving so quickly around us. That requires that our attorneys and staff have the utmost trust and confidence in the management team. Every day, I have to make sure that I continue to earn that trust and confidence, along with the other two members of the management team. That’s the critical internal management issue.
The critical external management issue is continuing to meet attorneys’ financial expectations given the changes in the marketplace. For years and years, lawyers have enjoyed steady increases in the firm’s profitability and their compensation. Firm management understands how challenging it is to continue to deliver those increases, whereas the line attorneys, if you will, who are not involved directly in management just assume that that is going to happen. Keeping our attorneys educated on the challenges in the marketplace and what they need to continue to do to stay ahead of that curve with their clients is what I stay awake at night thinking about.
MCC: What’s the best advice you’ve received about the business success of the firm?
Kleppinger: One of my mentors was a managing partner here. We ran together for almost 30 years. I learned a lot from him. As runners, we never thought about sprinting toward success in management of the firm. We only thought about the marathon. The best advice was to make decisions based on the long-term interests of the firm, not for short-term expedience. For example, the expedient thing to do is to welcome anyone that walks in the door with a big book of profitable business. But if that person is going to be disruptive to what we value culturally, that’s a short-term decision that will have long-term consequences. I emphasize this in my orientation with new attorneys. This is a marathon. It is not a sprint. That’s the best advice that I’ve received.
MCC: You’ve been at McNees for your entire career. Do you ever wonder what it would have been like to have worked somewhere else, even for a short time?
Kleppinger: I do. There are times in one’s career where you’re solicited by other firms or headhunters. At those points, you owe it to yourself and your family to at least take a look. I never made the leap, so I often wonder what would have happened if I had. In every case, it was a much larger firm than what McNees is today or was at the time. I believe I would have had a very successful legal career with the clientele I had built up when I was being solicited, but I don’t think I would have had as fulfilling a career in terms of the combination of providing legal service to clients and having the opportunity to lead an organization as great as this firm.
The only regret I have is that, now that I am a manager and a leader of the firm, I don’t have anything to compare it to other than what I read about and what other managing partners or our lateral hires are willing to share with me. I guess I’m at somewhat of a disadvantage because I don’t have that direct comparison, which may have made me a better leader today had I had it.
MCC: What is your favorite moment at McNees?
Kleppinger: We’re in our 81st year, and we had a large celebration for our 75th year in business. It was at the headquarters of a public broadcasting company that is a client. We invited all of our former partners, not only those that had retired but those that had left and gone to in-house positions or even to other law firms. We had five of the eight managing partners of the firm in its history. To see those five people together – unfortunately, the other three were deceased – was very special.
David Kleppinger is chairman of McNees Wallace & Nurick. In that role, he serves as chair of the firm’s Management Committee, and he is also chair of the firm’s Political Action Committee and an ex officio member of all other firm committees. David can be reached at email@example.com.