Daily Dispatch

Interview

Gary LeClair, Enterprising Lawyer

By | Aug.16.16 | Daily Dispatch, Enterprising Lawyer, Law Firm Management

What is an “enterprising lawyer”? Actually, they are easy to spot. Look for the more engaged and happy lawyers in the crowd. Deeply invested in the power of the unique work they do, they have ample interests beyond the practice of law as well. You probably know one — you may even be an enterprising lawyer yourself!

When they co-founded LeClairRyan in 1988, Gary LeClair and Dennis Ryan made a bold commitment to “Keep it small; only do venture capital work; love what they do.” One out of three isn’t bad; today LeClairRyan has more than 375 attorneys practicing a wide range of specialties in 26 offices stretching from Boston to Atlanta on the East Coast, Detroit to Houston Mid-Continent and San Francisco to Los Angeles on the West Coast. Now, after decades at the firm’s helm as CEO and chairman, LeClair is trying something new: practicing law full time. 

Gary D. LeClair

Shareholder
LeClairRyan, A Professional Corporation
Richmond, Va.
Georgetown Law, 1982
William & Mary, 1977 (Accounting)

Gary LeClair in Provence, France

Gary LeClair at his farm in Provence.

What is the focus of your personal law practice? Venture capital.

I see you started out as a CPA. Why did you decide to become a lawyer? The plan always was to become a lawyer. I only became a CPA because I majored in football and fraternity in my first few years of college and I needed time to rehabilitate my resume so that I could get into law school.

When did you know you wanted to be a lawyer? In high school. I thought my only options were to be a doctor or lawyer. I faint at the sight of blood, so I chose law.

Who was your most important mentor and, in a sentence, what did he teach you? Norm Scher of Hunton & Williams taught me that clients don’t wake up in the morning and think “I want to buy some billable hours today.” Rather, they want to achieve their business objections while managing and minimizing their legal risks, difficulties and expenses.

What about practicing law did you learn the hard way? To bill clients while the halo of appreciation still hovers above their head. I believe that advice originally came from Abe Lincoln.

How would you describe the location and décor of your own office? We have 10′-by-12′ one-size-fits-all offices. I have the same office as the new associate who started yesterday. The offices have glass fronts and identical modular desks. They are efficient, industrial and functional. Our offices look like our clients’ offices.

Do you think of yourself as “enterprising”? Why or why not? If “enterprising” means that you lead the league in mistakes, then yes. Our original business plan was to have a venture capital boutique with no more than four or five lawyers. That plan failed and somehow we ended up with 375 lawyers stretching from coast to coast. Perhaps I am more lucky than enterprising. We’ve been blessed with great partners who made this happen.

LeClairRyan began as a niche practice, focused on venture capital work, but grew to become more full service. Today, when so many lawyers are advised to “niche” their practices, how do you feel about your transition — and how would you advise lawyers attempting to narrow their practice focus? Individual lawyers can have niche practices and firms can have a complimentary portfolio of many niche practices. That mitigates the risk of economic cycles. Bankruptcy can be hot and corporate can be cold, or vice versa. “He ain’t heavy, he’s my partner” works well for law firms. In any given cycle, someone is carrying and someone is being carried.

You have said that LeClairRyan differentiates itself in the market based on price. Doesn’t that bring with it the risk that all you will be doing is cranking your prices down? We differentiate based on price and value, depending on who we are competing with. Where price is equivalent, we offer greater value. Where value is equivalent, we offer lower price. The goal isn’t just to be cheaper. Rather, it is to be better, faster and cheaper. Our clients have to do that, so we should as well.

Also, long term, it should be about margin as well as revenue. It should be possible to use project management and process improvement to provide the client with better, faster and cheaper services while the firm earns a higher margin and bottom-line profit. Everyone can win.

Many lawyers have good ideas, but struggle to bring them to reality. To what do you credit your ability to do this with LeClairRyan? LeClairRyan clearly has struggled to execute. Ideas are 1 percent. Execution is 99 percent. Bet on the jockey (the manager) and not the horse (the idea). LeClairRyan has a mixed record on execution. As we measure it, after 27 years we are just above 50 percent of where we need to be and the road ahead is far steeper than the road behind. We have made a ton of mistakes along the way. I suppose we’ve gotten this far because we often learn from our mistakes.

Better to have a culture of learning than a culture of blame.

Where do you think the practice of law is going? It is going to a far better place. I wish I were graduating from law school today. The opportunities have never been greater, provided you embrace a better-faster-cheaper approach to law.

I recommend to those considering law school that they get degrees or certifications in process improvement, project management, and predictive analytics. Recent grads have the opportunity to have better careers than many of those who suffered through the so-called Golden Age. Read “Ending the Gauntlet” and “The Destruction of the Young Lawyer” for a view of that age.

In that context, where are you personally going? I am fully retired from leadership and management and I’m not even on the board or any committees. I stepped down as CEO in 2011, missed the meeting and ended up with an extra five-year term as chairman through the end of 2015. While that was not a management role, it did keep me in the room. In a transition from the founder, the firm will do better if the old guy no longer is in the room. Last summer we rewrote our governance documents to eliminate the chairman’s role. I still get the invites to partner meetings, but do not attend.

I now am back to practicing law full time. My pitch is that I was first in my law school class, founded and led a business for 20 years, served on dozens of boards and worked on hundreds of venture capital matters. I offer that legal and business judgment and experience to my clients.

Where do you turn when things go really badly? Challenges are inevitable. We’ve had a dozen life-or-death challenges over the years. The economic crisis, defections, missed budgets. The only thing that should surprise us is if we go for any meaningful period of time without a major challenge. Some colleagues have a “challenge response” competency that allows them to seize the opportunities within the inevitable challenges. Part of that competency is to know who you want in the foxhole with you. I wanted the “back-straight, chin-up, eyes-clear team” with me when all around us were losing their heads. That’s who I’d turn to.

Fortunately, others get to deal with the challenges now. I get to go home, sit on the couch and channel surf with my remote.

You can find Gary LeClair at gary.leclair@leclairryan.com.

Read About More Enterprising Lawyers

We’re Always Looking for Enterprising Lawyers. If you’d like to suggest someone to profile, send information to merrilyn@attorneyatwork.com.

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