You at Work Spotlight: Olshan real estate group leader Thomas Kearns on his firm’s evolution to one of the top midsize law firms in the U.S.
When Thomas D. Kearns was an associate at Olshan Frome Wolosky LLP 40 years ago, the firm had fewer than 20 lawyers. Early on, Kearns followed his instinct for brand-building and enthusiasm for technology — pushing for a big presence at on-campus interviews, building a firmwide news-clipping system, and spearheading the firm’s early adoption of the web.
Four decades later, the firm has grown to 100 lawyers and Olshan is one of the country’s leading midsize law firms. Kearns, now one of Manhattan’s top commercial real estate lawyers, is co-leader of the real estate group and continues to oversee the firm’s website and marketing function.
How Far We’ve Come
Attorney at Work: Give us a little background on your role at Olshan.
When I was a senior associate about 35 years ago and we had 17 lawyers, I volunteered to help with a few administrative tasks. I started our on-campus interview program after realizing that [as a student ] I learned about other New York law firms through the National Association of Law Placement questionnaires and the firms’ on-campus materials.
I pushed to start our website and, after some initial resistance, got that up and running early on.
I also recognized that our lawyers were doing really sophisticated and challenging work that, in many ways, was industry-leading, but the rest of us in the firm didn’t know about it. I started circulating news stories about our deals with the help of my secretary, using scissors and tape.
How far we have come! We are now 100 lawyers, and while I moved away from the on-campus interviews years ago, I still coordinate our website and marketing efforts. I am also the real estate department’s practice leader.
In May 2023, you celebrated four decades at the firm! What are the top marketing and operational drivers that have differentiated your firm since that time?
First, we have been able to attract talented lawyers. Many lawyers prefer the smaller firm environment, particularly one with a long history of serving sophisticated clients with challenging, complex matters. Second, we are now in our third generation of hardworking senior lawyers who take personal charge of virtually all of our matters so that no client feels abandoned or shunted off.
Finally, we have leveraged technology to improve our internal and external communication. We were an early adopter of the web and have deep resources both online and in our database of documents and briefs for clients and prospective clients, including a series of blogs and regular client alerts.
What practices are at the forefront of your firm right now?
Our activist practice has been at the forefront of the investment community for two decades. Other active areas are our M&A and general corporate practice and our litigation practice, both as an adjunct to other practice areas and in its own right.
Bankruptcy and real estate are also cutting-edge as we have a leading work-out practice in the more challenging times we are seeing now in commercial real estate.
Lessons in Marketing and Business Development
What marketing initiatives do you have in place?
Our biggest initiative is the revamp of our website to take advantage of upgrades in backend technology. We are working on ways to better showcase our blogs, client alerts and similar materials; this helps give clients and prospects a better understanding of our expertise.
Do you have any cross-selling programs in place?
Our primary focus in cross-selling is to make sure all of our lawyers understand what successful services are performed by our other lawyers. “Hard sell” cross-selling is super sensitive and has a bad reputation in my mind, but we prioritize educating our lawyers so they recognize situations where clients have challenges that could be handled well by another lawyer or group in the firm and make the appropriate connection. We focus on education.
Nearly 30 years ago, I started clipping news stories of our matters and circulating them firmwide. Of course, now we do it electronically, but every lawyer gets a once-a-week email with a list of stories in the press about our matters to help drive awareness. (Note: Media clippings are prominent on the website and in lawyer bios as well.)
Does the firm encourage business development or sales coaching for lawyers?
We have periodic programs for all lawyers and have occasionally sponsored individual lawyers for executive coaching or marketing programs. But the truth is, the best value our senior lawyers bring is one-on-one discussions of business plans with colleagues to help them get comfortable marketing themselves as experts in their respective niches. We also provide media training for attorneys interacting with various publications and reporters.
What technology investments has your firm made related to your marketing and business development efforts?
We’ve invested in software in conjunction with our website that generates pitch packages easily, as many clients need this information quickly to address legal challenges. When we update the website, the next pitch package is automatically updated. We have client distribution lists that enable us to seamlessly and quickly share crucial developments in our practice areas with key clients. Part of our evolution as a firm is constantly testing new innovations to see if they provide a sound ROI — if they do, we develop an implementation plan and start using them.
What lessons have you learned over the years about what makes for successful marketing?
You need to be laser-focused on the right audience and provide value at every interaction. It’s imperative for us to find the right partners who understand the clients and markets we serve and can help us gain exposure and win work. Occasionally, service providers don’t listen to what we want to accomplish, and that’s when we know they are not a fit for us. The right partners make all the difference in our marketing efforts. They understand that we succeed by going to where our clients and referral sources are.
What are some misconceptions about legal marketing?
There are some superstar lawyers who always light up a room when they walk in, and we have had our share of those; those personalities can be intimidating to the rest of us mere mortals. The beauty of legal marketing for the rest of us is that clients want expertise and experience in their discreet areas of need at a particular moment.
The biggest misconception the average talented lawyer has is that they need to have a superstar personality, when in fact you don’t. You need to have the right expertise in a growing area where clients will see the value and are willing to pay for efficient guidance.
Technology’s Role at Olshan
AI is a hot topic right now. Do you envision big shifts in legal as this technology evolves?
Yes, and AI is a big topic for us. For example, over the years, we have created an amazing database of transaction documents, including different versions of documents negotiated with other top-quality law firms. The knowledge locked in those packets of data is enormous and very valuable, but that database has been time-consuming to navigate successfully. In the next few years, we expect AI software to be able to magnify the value in that trove of information. AI and similar technologies will let us leverage our databases and simplify and improve our written work product. And that’s just the start.
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