Attorney at Work’s new “You at Work Spotlight” series focuses on traditional and emerging career paths for lawyers and business professionals. Below we talk with Allison Murdock about the role of managing partner today.
Less than a year ago, Allison M. Murdock was elected managing partner at Stinson LLP, an AmLaw 200 firm with 450 lawyers in 12 offices nationwide. Murdock, who had served as the firm’s deputy managing partner for 11 years, says becoming managing partner was a natural transition for her.
“I already knew our firm’s lawyers, practices, clients and operations. This continuity was invaluable, especially as we navigated the uncertainty of the pandemic.”
As managing partner, Murdock is charged with ultimate responsibility for all aspects of the firm’s operations and performance. This includes responsibility for the firm’s financial performance, leading and implementing strategic and growth initiatives, approving operational policies, and providing annual partner compensation recommendations to the board of directors. “One of my most important and rewarding responsibilities is interacting with all of our lawyers and personnel as we work together to continue to grow our client-focused and community-engaged firm,” says Murdock.
Allison Murdock: Becoming Managing Partner
Tell us about your path to becoming managing partner.
Allison M. Murdock: I began serving as managing partner in July 2021 after serving as the firm’s deputy managing partner for 11 years. But, in many respects, my path to managing partner began much earlier in my career and required a parallel commitment to professional development, client service and internal leadership.
I joined Stinson in 1988 after graduating from law school and, like most associates, was singularly focused on developing my legal skills and building client relationships. As I did so, I developed relationships with lawyers throughout our firm. As the firm expanded, so did my opportunities. Fostering these internal connections, building client relationships, and honing my legal skills were important building blocks to my leadership development.
As my practice evolved, I was asked to serve on firm committees. Eventually, I chaired our Associate Development and Mentoring and Associate Evaluation Committees. I was selected to serve on the firm’s board of directors in 2003. I also chaired one of the firm’s business litigation divisions before being selected as the deputy managing partner. It’s a privilege now to serve as Stinson’s managing partner.
What is your involvement in legal ops and the firm’s strategic initiatives?
AMM: I am ultimately responsible for the legal operations of the firm, including the lawyers and their practices, but my day-to-day involvement in legal operations is focused at a strategic level, working with our firm’s deputy managing partner and practice division leaders to achieve growth and maintain and improve profitability.
I am directly responsible for leading, developing and implementing the firm’s strategic plan and growth strategy. The development of the strategic plan, though, involves multiple stakeholders. We engage and include our partners in the strategic planning process to gain buy-in, which drives better and faster strategic outcomes.
What is the leadership structure in your firm?
AMM: Stinson has a centralized leadership structure. The managing partner serves as the firm’s CEO and reports directly to a 17-person board of directors, which functions with the power and responsibilities customarily held and exercised by a board of directors of a general business corporation. The managing partner appoints a deputy managing partner, who is primarily responsible for overseeing the firm’s practice division leaders and their divisions as well as serving as the leadership liaison with certain firm committees.
The managing partner, deputy managing partner and chief operating officer together form the firm’s leadership team. Each member of the leadership team has distinct roles and responsibilities but regularly works together on the day-to-day leadership of the firm.
Taking the Lead in a Time of Crisis: Learning to Adapt
What have been your biggest challenges as managing partner?
AMM: The pandemic created so many personal challenges for our people. One of the biggest challenges as a leader was the inability to solve so many hardships our people faced. We provided as much certainty as possible through regular communications regarding the firm’s performance and how we were addressing the organizational effects of the pandemic. We also expanded policies for more flexible work schedules and leaves.
The inability to connect in person with our lawyers, personnel and clients also has been challenging. As leaders, we always spent substantial time in each of our offices meeting with people. Technology certainly allows for effective communication, and it was crucial to our firm’s success during the pandemic. But, there is no substitute for the in-person relationships that form when people get together for lunch, grab a coffee, or stop by one another’s offices to chat or ask a question.
What lessons have you taken away from the past two years?
AMM: For me, an important lesson from these past two years is that lawyers can change. Overnight, we learned how to work and collaborate differently. Through our shared experience, we learned we can be flexible and adapt. Given the fast-paced changes in the legal industry, this is a hopeful lesson. Our willingness to change and adapt is key to continued success.
What technology investments has your firm made in the last two years? What’s next?
AMM: Stinson is committed to staying ahead of the technology curve. Even before the pandemic began, we had the technology and resources to build pricing models, pre-matter budgets, budget updates and client portals, as well as legal project management capabilities and the ability to mine data to develop competitive AFAs. We had also invested heavily in the technology necessary for our lawyers to work remotely.
Over the past two years, most of our investment has been related to expanding remote work capabilities to all personnel and investing to improve our remote communication. Looking ahead to 2022, we will continue to enhance and upgrade our technology infrastructure and pursue new projects. For example, we are currently evaluating the use of paperless proformas and how they can improve efficiency in a hybrid remote work environment.
Learning to Lead
If you could provide advice to law firm leaders right now, what would it be?
AMM: Every law firm leader faces opportunities and challenges unique to their firm, and they must rely on their own trusted advisors for how best to navigate those opportunities and challenges. But I believe all law firm leaders must remain nimble — we must be willing to act and react quickly to change, even when it takes us down an unplanned path.
What is your philosophy for managing people?
AMM: My philosophy for managing people is grounded in developing positive and genuine relationships with people throughout the firm and being fair, honest, kind, compassionate and respectful to everyone regardless of their role.
Managing people also requires facing difficult decisions or conversations head-on and doing so directly and respectfully. Earning trust, showing respect and acting in service to everyone in the firm is fundamental to my philosophy for managing people.
How have mentorship and sponsorship played a role in your career?
AMM: Mentorship and sponsorship have been invaluable to me throughout my career. Although formal mentoring and sponsorship programs did not exist when I began my career at Stinson in 1988, informal mentoring and sponsorship were important in Stinson’s culture. My mentors and sponsors — who mostly were men — provided me with opportunities to work on complex legal matters with direct client interaction. They included me in business development opportunities, and guided me as I developed my client relationships.
Equally important, my mentors and sponsors taught me the business of law, which gave me a deeper understanding of our firm’s operations. This support prepared me for my future leadership roles.
One of my early leadership roles was as chair of Stinson’s Associate Development and Mentoring Committee, which focused on ensuring all associates were developing meaningful mentoring relationships. Stinson has grown its mentoring programs over the years, and two years ago, launched a formal sponsorship initiative to support and champion the business development success of underrepresented partners.
Mentorship and sponsorship — whether formal or informal — make all the difference in developing a satisfying and successful career.
Where Is the Legal Industry Heading?
For decades it seems, the profession has been debating alternative business structures, including ownership by nonlawyers, and lately the regulatory grounds are beginning to shift. What are your thoughts on this?
AMM: Stinson is always focused on providing innovative services to our clients. Depending on the framework adopted by the governing jurisdictions, the prospect of non-lawyer ownership could help law firms like ours pair non-legal services with the exceptional legal work valued by our clients. But there certainly are significant questions that any framework for allowing non-lawyer ownership will need to answer.
For example, the attorney-client relationship involves duties of diligence, loyalty, communication and independent professional judgment. Protecting that relationship from investor demands and profit motives is at the heart of the rules against non-lawyer ownership and sharing legal fees with non-lawyers. Non-lawyer ownership also implicates lawyers’ duties to maintain client confidentiality and protect attorney-client privileged information, because investors presumably will want information about the specific legal matters that a firm’s lawyers are handling.
Finally, creating greater public access to legal services often is touted as a benefit of non-lawyer ownership. But how it will achieve that goal while simultaneously generating profits for equity investors remains unanswered. It will be interesting to see what is learned from the Utah “sandbox” model, which aims in part to deliver affordable legal services to the public.
Where is the legal industry going?
AMM: The legal industry has experienced tremendous change over the last few years, and change will continue to accelerate. Competition for clients already is fierce, and it will escalate. Clients expect better value, services and solutions. Alternative legal service providers already have a foothold in the industry. Clients have displayed a willingness to retain different legal providers — whether ALSPs or other firms — to handle various aspects of a matter. This requires the legal industry, especially law firms, to collaborate with other providers, often competitors, in ways they traditionally haven’t. Also, a few states are exploring non-lawyer ownership of law firms. If adopted, this could provide some firms with the capital needed to invest in the technology and other resources that will allow them to compete for clients they might otherwise not have been positioned to serve.
The legal industry also is facing generational change. The next generation of lawyers’ expectations are different than those of my generation. They want and expect meaningful work, generous pay and benefits, training, mentoring, effective communication, immediate feedback, pro bono opportunities, work-life balance, well-being support, and a voice in decision-making. Without these opportunities, retention will be difficult, if not impossible. My generation’s willingness and ability to adapt will be the key to ensuring retention.
Where are YOU going?
AMM: I’m excited to lead the firm as the legal industry grows and changes and the legal profession adapts. I’m particularly focused on three priorities, all foundational to providing excellent client service: cultivating our next generation of high-performing lawyers, using innovation to continue to deliver firmwide client service excellence, and growing our firm in our current and new markets. I am equally dedicated to building on our firm’s long-standing commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion, pro bono service, and supporting the well-being of everyone in our firm.
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