Managing for a Culture of Cooperation: An Interview with Deborah Koeffler

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By Edge International | Apr 18, 2014

Deborah Koeffler is the Managing Partner of Mitchell Silberberg & Knupp in Los Angeles, California. Coming from having been a practice leader for the firm’s labor and employment group, Deborah reviews the principles she learned as a practice leader and how she is employing those same principles as a firm-wide effort.

Much gets written about the science of management, the do’s and don’ts. Much of it is useful. However, when you take a look at the linchpin issues — practice management, practice development, building consensus, sharing wealth, implementing decisions — you find more art than science. You’re dependent on the good will and honesty of your partners and, perhaps most of all, you’re dependent on tradition. You need a culture of cooperation.

There aren’t many law firms in the country where such an established culture plays as palpable a role as at Mitchell, Silberberg & Knupp in Los Angeles. It’s a 125-lawyer firm that’s been around 90 years, a fascinating history begun on the storied movie lots of Hollywood. The firm, actually one of the oldest on the West Coast, grew with the studios. In those days, Mitchell Silberberg lawyers spent as much time on-site at the lots as they did in their offices.

Today, Mitchell, Silberberg has parlayed its entertainment industry pedigree into a broader media practice that lives on the cutting edge of technology. Yesterday’s 16-millimeter camera and director’s megaphone are today’s Internet, cable station, CD-ROM, digital screen. As one discipline builds on another, as fields of expertise allow for collateral growth, the scope of clients expands as well. Technology that’s relevant to an entertainment client could, for example, position the firm to represent a toy manufacturer using the same technology to create an electronic game. Such is growth.

Like most smart firms — and all smart midsize firms — Mitchell Silberberg thus knows it has to play on its strengths. If it’s growing an intellectual property practice, it’s not doing so out of thin air. Where the firm wants to go is based on where it’s been: thus, the planned convergence of its historic strengths in intellectual property and entertainment with its burgeoning computer technology practice. Similarly, the firm’s expansion into pharmaceuticals and biotechnology was prompted by a strong established foundation in health care.

But the culture here is as much an internal matter as client or industry-based. A decisively democratic firm, Mitchell Silberberg has been able to induce leadership and adapt to a changing world because, in the past, inveterate partners were intent on guaranteeing succession. They were thinking about what the law firm they built would look like after they retired. There was thus enough art at Mitchell Silberberg to allow protean but orderly change through the years.

Mitchell Silberberg’s latest self-transformation occurred in 1997 when a lawyer named Deborah Koeffler was chosen to be managing partner. A 24-year veteran, Koeffler has never worked for another law firm and, one suspects, she never will. One thing jumps out at you fifteen or twenty seconds into a conversation with the woman: She does truly love the firm she works for.

An employment lawyer, and former head of the labor/employment practice group, Koeffler’s very selection was an act of creative re-adaptation by the firm. Her accession was part of a much larger change in governance designed to streamline how Mitchell Silberberg makes decisions and puts them into effect.

By doing that, Mitchell Silberberg has opened itself to further change. Koeffler, who took over at the beginning of 1998, is neither a caretaker nor a dictator. She respects the idea of partnership and wants change to be consensual. When it’s consensual, it grows out of the culture itself. But Koeffler is the firm’s first full-time managing partner, so for the first time a Mitchell Silberberg regular will train her full attention on directing — and redirecting — the firm.

Top of her list: the reformulation of practice groups with a sharper eye toward professional development and interdisciplinary client service.

When we talked with Koeffler, she laid out a wide-ranging but coherent blueprint for the future. It’s a plan that makes particular sense for a firm with Mitchell Silberberg’s client base. At the same time, it speaks to the problems, and potential, of most law firms hoping to realize full potential where it matters most — in the trenches, where lawyers practice law.

Edge: Some firms favor practice groups based on specialization, others on the industry being served. How does that play out at Mitchell, Silberberg? With your strength in entertainment, it would seem natural for you to think more in terms of industry.

Koeffler: As client needs and business opportunities evolve, so must we. Much of the work which my colleagues want to do requires coordinating expertise across historic department lines. We must strive for unified service and resist balkanization by department or specialty or even industry.

We are now in the process of forming interdisciplinary groups in entertainment/new media and already have them in several areas, such as intellectual property, real estate, technology and emerging companies. Those are in addition to our specialty-based groups in labor/employment, corporate/business transactions, music and motion pictures, litigation, immigration, tax, and estate planning.

We need to operate on several levels or talent groupings. We continue to need our self-motivated, high-quality groups based on specialties. But we also need to regroup into whatever talent clusters serve a client’s needs or our business goals the best way. We need to build a fully integrated firm that can respond as a whole to whatever a client needs or to developing an industry presence, regardless of how practice groups or specialties are internally organized.

Client needs often are not compartmentalized so why should we be? Why shouldn’t lawyers evaluate their clients’ needs and coordinate services like physicians in a good acute care facility treat patients, in the sense that a physician – be it a surgeon, internist, or other specialist — looks at the patient’s chart and confers with the other treating physicians for coordinated care.

It’s a question of how you deploy and combine the attorneys you’ve got.

Edge: How do you do that?

Koeffler: I connect the dots.

Edge: The dots? You mean you actually bring people together, a lawyer from this group and a lawyer from that group?

Koeffler: That’s one thing I do. For example, a colleague alerts me that a client wants to establish a business to distribute music over the Internet. Who are the appropriate lawyers for me to talk to — in our business transactions, music, copyright, trademark, patent, labor practices — in order to put together a practice team?

Edge: Labor?

Koeffler: Oh sure. Our labor practice at Mitchell, Silberberg will evaluate and advise on whether artists or others may have rights under labor agreements such as reuse rights — although when the original reuse provisions were negotiated, the parties may not have contemplated Internet distribution. One exciting part of being active attorneys in computer technology businesses is that we need to anticipate and solve legal problems for which precedent is nonexistent or debatable. Similarly, our copyright experts will participate in this client effort as they have developed expertise in technological piracy. Each other discipline I mentioned has important contributions to meeting the client’s goals and our responsibility is to coordinate this expertise as seamlessly for the client as possible.

Edge: And this connecting of dots is mainly the responsibility of the managing partner?

Koeffler: My job – distilled to its most fundamental core – is to enable my colleagues and the firm to reach even higher plateaus of service, which is the key to our success. My vision is firm-wide, so I am one person who is always mindful of connecting the dots. Presumably, as things progress, more of our group leaders and colleagues will seek and recognize the connections. For example, our attorneys in the IP group connected the dots. This core group of patent lawyers, transactional lawyers, trademark experts, and several trial attorneys formed an interdisciplinary group out of an appreciation of the value of the aggregate contributions.

Of course, colleagues may be in more than one group. The New Media group which we’re forming includes lawyers from the IP group as well as attorneys from other industry-focused and specialty-focused groups. I see forming appropriate teams as a crucial part of my job which will have a particularly decisive effect on how we practice law and how we identify and seek new business.

Being a managing partner, at least at a firm this size, is about knowing what everybody does and how they can contribute to group efforts which produce greater outcomes for all of us than the sum of the parts. That entails the constant re-education of the managing partner. For example, the group I knew least about was corporate. I was clueless as to what they actually do. So we holed up together for several hours and they taught me.

Edge: This dot-connecting seems to be a full-time job all by itself — never mind your other responsibilities. That’s why there aren’t a lot of managing partners around these days still practicing law.

Koeffler: What I do has been very time consuming but very worthwhile. In order to unify our efforts, I have needed to become far more educated about what my colleagues do and aspire to do. By the way, I think full-time managing partners remain the exception in firms our size.

Edge: Really? How can they possibly have the time to be familiar enough with what their partners do to exert the kind of influence on team formation and practice management that you’re talking about?

Koeffler: I do not know how other firms function. I think our approach to full-time management remains unusual but wise. There isn’t time enough to manage a practice and a firm of over 120 attorneys. Someone should have the firm on their mind full-time and be responsible for the welfare of the entire organization.

Edge: What kind of response do you get from partners when you approach them about a new or ad hoc practice team? Doesn’t, say, a tax lawyer feel intruded on, for want of a better description, when suddenly the managing partner starts talking to him about joining a new group she’d like him to join?

Koeffler: Quite to the contrary. They’re excited by it. These are smart people who thrive on stimulation and, fortunately, enjoy practicing with their colleagues. In fact, what my colleagues tell me is that they want us to continue to attract more of the better business which is challenging and permits them to team with their friends here with whom they started practice years ago. Besides, these teams have had some rewarding successes which make it easier to gain consensus.

I don’t impose, anyway. I have a steadfast belief in the culture of our partnership which favors leadership in ideas, principles, and direction and assent by consensus building and bolstered by a little moral persuasion.

Edge: What did the firm have in mind when you were selected managing partner? What do they expect from you?

Koeffler: To answer that, you need to understand more about this firm historically. Democracy in a partnership can be an asset but also can impair decision-making. In the mid-1970’s, for example, decision-making was cumbersome and the group of decision-makers so large that decisions could take too long. Competition hadn’t yet forced law firms to be more focused and efficient in the way they managed themselves.

What kept us on the right course in the 1980s was that our senior leadership, such as Arthur Groman, had been attuned to the importance of succession and made sure the next generation was ready to assume governance well before the senior leadership retired. Arthur was a godfather to this firm and mentor to many of today’s partners. Arthur had a wonderful practice, stimulating and diverse, as personal counsel to clients like Howard Hughes, Armand Hammer, Occidental Petroleum, and numerous studios. He established a tradition of developing and mentoring trial lawyers who would take his place. He also was a key partner in our governance as the Chair of the Litigation Department and a member of the Executive Committee. He loved this firm and deeply cared about it literally up to the day of his death. He left that legacy of firm devotion as well. He and his peers included young people into committee-level positions to begin their training for leadership.

The firm had several giants like Arthur who mentored us professionally and developed the next generation’s leaders. Our predecessors instilled in us a shared culture — despite our individuality.

Edge: Democracy and all.

Koeffler: Democracy and all. Democratic process coupled with leadership moved the firm by the mid-1980s to a five-lawyer Executive Committee, which was a marked improvement. But we experimented further, evolving this trend toward centralization. Willingness to change is one of our assets.

In 1992, we evolved to a managing partner concept. Bill Cole, a colleague of mine for over 20 years in the Labor and Employment Department, was elected our first managing partner. It was his accomplishment to steer us through the early 1990s, which were challenging times for many firms in L.A. during California’s deep recession and its shifts in the business bases. Bill was younger at the time than I am now.

But Bill was spending half his time practicing — trying to reconcile demands of two different, very demanding jobs, a very substantial law practice and firm management. The then-Executive Committee concluded that we would benefit from someone’s 100% focus on the firm, somebody full-time.

In late 1997, we took the step, which could have been difficult because of competing priorities. Managing partners’ credibility derives, in part, from success in building their own practices. Full-time management in a firm different from ours, could have resulted in loss of income generation from the attorney who switches to management. I was 49 years old and at a very productive stage of my legal career when I virtually stopped practice to assume this new job. However, our team approach to practice and collegiality enabled us to effectively transition my practice and client responsibilities.

It’s tough enough for big firms to turn productive partners into managing partners, but for mid-size ones, it’s a bold move. I guess that’s why fewer mid-size firms have gone this route than you might think.

But we did it anyway. Last year’s governance change involved my selection as managing partner, so Bill Cole and I actually switched places. He assumed my prior position as Chair of the Labor and Employment Department.

There’s now a Governing Board of six lawyers plus me. We’re responsible for strategic policy. Its chairman, Gene Veenhuis, functions as CFO and we complement one another quite well. The Executive Committee, a subcommittee of the Board, handles day-to-day administrative policy decisions. I work with both committees. I’m the equivalent of a CEO.

Most everything I try to accomplish which will materially affect the partnership, I do after building consensus with the Executive Committee and Board, and beyond.

Edge: Why were you selected?

Koeffler: To give you the bluntest possible answer, no one else wanted it. No one else had my mental disability, or eagerness to take on such a job.

Edge: Why did you want it?

Koeffler: I had enjoyed a wonderful career as a lawyer at MSK for 24 years. I found each stage rewarding but was surprised and pleased by the immense satisfaction I enjoyed running the Labor Department because of the group’s achievements and esprit de corps. I wanted to continue to make something and I was also ready for different challenges. This new career opportunity intrigued me but I was only going to do it if I could do it full-time. If I continued to practice, my commitments to clients would conflict with the same level of commitment I wanted to make to the firm.

Edge: I suspect some of the women acceding to management positions at law firms these days are less powerful than meets the eye.

Koeffler: I can’t speak about other firms. I was not a candidate for this or any other job here either because of or despite my gender. The responsibilities of this job were established without regard to the incumbent bur rather how the firm could be best served. They include responsibility for strategic planning, policy making, and partner relationships, all of which distinguish my job from what are sometimes called administrative partners.

Edge: If I were a woman managing a law firm, the whole subject of gender would bore me.

Koeffler: It’s irrelevant to me. I have always defined my professional life by the career I chose, not my gender. My responsibilities as managing partner arise out of the job, not my gender. In every endeavor at this firm, I have always been treated as a colleague, not a female colleague.

Edge: Let’s return to this definitive building of multidisciplinary teams. You recently told Of Counsel magazine that you want to enable the firm to plan its future in a team-oriented way, and to evolve into a firm of practices that are multidisciplinary. What are you evolving from? What has the firm been in recent years if not a firm based on multidisciplinary practice groups? It’s puzzling that a firm so involved in an industry like entertainment hasn’t gone this route much earlier.

Koeffler: Our current evolution is one of degree, flexibility, and deliberate design. We have provided a range of multidisciplinary services to the entertainment industry for many years. But the needs of that industry are quickly being transformed by computer and related technologies. We have been reconstituting into different teams to meet those emerging needs as well as to service numerous other industries in which we also have significant firm-wide knowledge.

Now we are more cohesively bringing together our differently skilled attorneys to coordinate our internal information sharing, client and business development, and client services. It’s a more thoughtful process.

Edge: Connecting the dots.

Koeffler: Yes. We will create several more groups in the near future, by design and to achieve shared goals, for which group effort will be far more rewarding than individual effort.

You asked me before about other lawyers connecting the dots themselves. One of my goals is to create a repository of the firm’s intellectual capital, what I suppose people mean these days when they talk about knowledge management. But not just for the purpose of helping lawyers tap prior legal work for a client’s benefit; I’m also talking about a resource my colleagues can use for building appropriate teams.

Toward that end, we rewrote the firm brochure and completed a new bio page for each attorney and an electronic database of similar information. Ideally, colleagues need to know or quickly learn what everybody else here does if we’re to build the teams that clients need and recognize business development opportunities existing within our organization.

Edge: Do you feel that, having been the head of a practice group, you are now in a better position to understand what can be demanded of the various group leaders, as well as the kind of support they need from firm management?

Koeffler: Again, I need to put my answer in a historical context. Following the premature deaths of two successive wonderful practice leaders who were adroit at building a practice group and individual mentoring, I found myself taking on some of the responsibility for running the group. I was probably at a very early, much too tender, point in my career; I’d only been practicing for seven years.

So I just started playing a leadership role. I started calling the meetings, making the plans. I started overseeing recruitment. No one seemed to mind. There was no vote, no acclimation, no huzzah for Koeffler. I just stepped in. Maybe I was a natural leader, maybe not. Role models are truly important and my employment group colleagues and I were very fortunate. We were always tight and group-oriented because of how our mentors raised us, and my job as Chair was greatly facilitated by these factors.

Not all practice groups have the same legacy or the inherited cohesion arising from the close commonality of their practices. Also, not many people want to displace practice time to significantly invest in leadership.

I don’t see the problem so much as one of demanding accountability from or supporting group leaders. The bigger challenge is finding the people with the disposition, talent, standing, and willingness to lead. I think someone has to be earnestly committed to making their practice group’s health and development their top priority. We have several excellent group leaders and I hope we evolve several more.

I know this is an area near and dear to your heart. I find your PracticeCoach® invaluable in terms of what it can educe from lawyers. At a personal level, it’s given shape and concreteness to how I see my own team-building interest and responsibilities. But here’s the gap: how to find group leaders with the interest and potential to learn what PracticeCoach® can teach. Who’s the person that can do the coaching?

Edge: Is that the toughest part of your job?

Koeffler: Leadership development is one great challenge. Learning about the business of law practice is challenging; running a practice group is only in part analogous to running the whole firm. On a more personal level, time management is a challenge. I function on so many levels within the firm that keeping focused on the big goals can be easily distracted by the minutiae. Yet minutia can make a significant difference to outcome. I must tend to the unscheduled issues and opportunities of the day while driving forward on the year’s goals. Managing a law firm is a little like writing and then conducting a complicated orchestral piece. Will I write a good piece, will I synchronize the parts well, will I have the right balance between my different orchestral sections, and will it be well conducted with ensemble and soloists playing well individually and as a group?

Edge: What do you expect from the practice group leaders?

Koeffler: I expect them to know their practice and their people well and to create and implement growth and development plans for attorneys, individually and as a group. They should be catalysts for high hiring standards and extraordinary client service, achieved by training our attorneys, supervising their work, and assigning work through thoughtful design, not happenstance. They should maintain a high level of esprit de corps within the group and liaison effectively with other practice groups.

Edge: But some of the things you’ve done do relate directly to your experience as a group leader. I’m thinking of the signed commitment statements the employment group lawyers wrote and signed. Now, it’s my understanding all partners at the firm will do the same.

Koeffler: The written commitments from the employment group members came about as the natural conclusion of partner brainstorming on managing ourselves and our practice after the death of our departmental chair. We met a full day and talked about clients, contacts, and business development opportunities.

Sixty pages of notes emerged from that meeting, which I distilled into a concise statement of group goals. These included setting billable expectations as well as mundane but important things like setting up lunches to encourage cross-fertilization of client business or integrating more practice members into the work, a commitment to training, and creating more community awareness of our capabilities. Practice development targets were quite specific by business name, contacts, and substantive area.

I asked each partner to draw up and sign a statement of personal commitments, consistent with the fact that each of them had varying strengths as finders and as minders. Each one of them drew up his separate agenda of what he would undertake to advance the group’s goals and committed to them. Lawyers take written commitments very seriously and each group member was very thoughtful. I think the somber context of the meeting, just after the loss of our friend, guaranteed that all of us would indeed try hard to fulfill our commitments.

Then we shared our overall goals with associates and asked them to write similar statements of personal plans. Associates’ commitments were intended to be modest and appropriate to their experience level and to contribute to their overall professional development.

Edge: And their adoption at the firm level?

Koeffler: Our partner retreat in the spring was the first step toward a similar approach. The retreat itself was a significant event. We presented a State of the Firm report which created the context for goal setting for the remainder of the year.

The idea of getting every partner to write a commitment statement arose out of a discussion at the retreat on the subject of: What Do Partners Owe Each Other? It was an extremely good session. In fact, after we got back to the office, several partners left voice mails reaffirming some of the points about mutual commitment and pride in the partners’ relationships.

That experience dovetailed with an idea that your Edge Group had suggested also be done at the retreat. We asked every partner to answer a few simple questions about the amount of time they believe they contribute to the firm and what they were prepared to additionally commit in order to achieve their income goals. We have distilled that information. The Governing Board set expectations for time commitments by partners consistent with targeted economic outcomes which will create even greater partner satisfaction and consensus on what would be an acceptable increase in overall effort. Now the Governing Board has asked partners to create written commitments in the same way the members of the employment group did a few years ago. It’s our version of Management by Objectives. MBO’s will be commitments of specific partner undertakings to help achieve the firm’s goals.

Edge: Your notion of MBO’s geared to firm goals and multidisciplinary teams seems consonant with, or may even require a collegial firm culture. Many law firms are not humane places, yet they seem to do very well without much concern about the psychic welfare of the people who work there.

Koeffler: That may be, but I wouldn’t work at or run one. I manage this firm with certain assumed values. As I said before, many of our partners have spent their whole career here, mentored and shaped by their predecessors in a fine tradition. The retreat confirmed that we want to preserve and perpetuate what we value and enjoy.

At our retreat, I asked my partners what they were willing to sacrifice for money. I could come up with ways for them to make more. Maybe I could get the Governing Board to support initiatives on, say, billables that a lot of partners wouldn’t like. But I’m not going to tell them they have to make more money just because I think they should.

Maybe some people would say I’m a cowardly manager. But this is a partnership, and its heart and soul should not be sacrificed for a few points on a profitability index.

We have remained together because we can count on and like practicing with one another. As I said at the outset, I manage a partnership and my task is to preserve the best of ourselves while also leading us in new directions.

Edge: Which leads neatly to a fundamental question: What now are your primary goals for this law firm?

Koeffler: Among the primary goals, I want to continue to set the bar high on our hiring eligibility criteria and keep us all focused on attracting people with a high chance of mutual success in our relationship. We continue to look at each candidate as if s/he may become a partner. We do admit a number of partners yearly. I do not consider either associates or partners as fungible. Recruitment is a lifeblood issue for a professional services firm. I speak to, or at least greet, as many candidates as possible. I feel that I am one of the gatekeepers and by my participation I establish our commitments. Our efforts are greatly enhanced by a professionalized approach to recruitment headed by our new recruiting director, who is a seasoned trial lawyer, and her assistant whose professional training is in human resources. Directly related to this goal is the same dedication to and quality of attorney development which benefited all of us in our careers.

Among other goals is completing the informational infrastructure that I talked about earlier. I also want to develop a system for tracking, analyzing, and reporting in real time to my colleagues, business trends and firm accomplishments. Combining a solid information infrastructure and good internal business reporting will support the goals of cross-selling, an interdisciplinary approach to law practice, and wise strategic planning. We also have several strategic goals including the continued development and community awareness of our new media, intellectual property, and computer technology expertise.

Always a goal — each and every day — is developing closer cohesion and unification to all aspects of our firm.

Edge: I wonder how many managing partners, even the ones who are full-time managing partners, see it as part of their jobs to be this closely involved in helping lawyers manage and develop their practices.

Koeffler: I can’t think of anything that is not my job, at least in the broad sense. Isn’t the role of the managing partner to enable her colleagues, individually and collectively, to be the best that they can be? Certainly that includes unfettering and assisting team leaders as they pursue business goals and develop their practice groups.

Edge: These objectives all seem interrelated in a way that tells me you have a guiding vision of your firm’s future, and that the practice teams you want to set up serve that vision.

Koeffler: I will focus on one objective. Entertainment will continue to be a fundamental contributor to Los Angeles’ economy. Mitchell, Silberberg & Knupp should be the high tech firm of choice in this city for that industry. Few if any firms in California are as knowledgeable about all facets of the entertainment industry — music, TV, motion pictures — as we are. We serve the intellectual property, litigation, labor, immigration, financing, and transactional needs of the industry and have for years. We also have great technical and legal professional depth in computers, the Internet, digital and cable technology. These technologies represent very significant business opportunities and legal challenges for the entertainment industry. We are well suited to meet these challenges and have been tackling them for our entertainment clients all along.