Firm-wide Managing Partner, Thompson Hine
By Sharon Holbrook
Debbie Read is at the top of the legal profession – not just in Cleveland, but nationwide.
As the managing partner of Thompson Hine’s seven offices, Read’s job is that of a CEO. Thompson Hine is one of the 200 largest law firms in the United States, an elite group that still counts very few women in its top leadership ranks.
Read doesn’t spend a lot of time talking about her unusual achievement, though. She’d rather chat about the nuts and bolts of what she does to run a successful law firm.
“I really enjoy the business side,” says Read. “It has been quite exhilarating to look at the marketplace and pick a strategy for our business, to train lawyers and staff to embrace that strategy, and see the success of that.”
The practice of law has evolved in recent years. Decades ago, a sort of blank-check approach with clients was fairly common. Clients needed services, so they went to their lawyers who were tasked with doing whatever needed to be done, and then the bill was paid. Back then, the bill wouldn’t even be itemized.
Those days are gone. But Read explains that even after itemized bills became the norm, lawyers still made cost and strategy decisions without much (or any) input from the client. “Who buys services that way?” asks Read. As she points out, if you are getting your house painted, you’ll want to know how much it will cost, whether the old paint will be scraped off first, who will do the work, and so on, all before you sign on. But, until recently, the details of how legal work was delivered were considered to be solely law firm matters, and not client matters.
The economic downturn in 2008 was a game changer, says Read. Clients wanted more say in how to prioritize their legal matters and determine how much money and time to put into various issues. So Thompson Hine responded. The challenge for lawyers, says Read, is not only becoming more nimble in pivoting between pulling out all the stops on some legal matters and working more leanly on others. “It’s also about becoming more predictable, more efficient, and more transparent in the way we deliver legal services.”
“It has been quite exhilarating to look at the marketplace and pick a strategy for our business, to train lawyers and staff to embrace that strategy, and see the success of that.”
Budgets have to be more than guesses; there must be a methodical, credible process of making them, as well as a way of monitoring how the legal work is tracking the budget.
And that’s where Read’s forward-thinking leadership has been key. “Innovation is part of Debbie’s remarkable vision for the firm, an absolute linchpin,” says Read’s partner, Robyn Minter Smyers. That innovation is perhaps most notable in Thompson Hine’s development of its own budgeting software, SmartPaTH, a tool that lawyers can use to create a detailed template budget. It’s not just an internal tool – it’s an important part of the conversation with clients. Together, they can utilize SmartPaTH to budget by phases and by project, to adjust attorney staffing levels, and to make strategic decisions about how to provide legal services that meet client needs.
“It’s not just new software, new programs, new work methods. It’s really a different way of thinking about the practice,” says Read, “a mindset change.”
Things are changing within the firm, too. It’s not just clients who want to shake things up; younger lawyers have different priorities. “The associates today have a different outlook on the practice. They really want to have a meaningful day, week, month,” says Read. “A lot of baby boomers did mindless, meaningless work for days and days on end – if someone told you to do it, you just did it.”
Read understands that there’s more to life than work. She and her husband, retired attorney John Read, chose to live on the East Side in part because it was a shorter hop to their older relatives in the Pittsburgh area. Residents of Shaker Heights since 1987, they also juggled two careers and parenthood, as many young lawyers do today. The Mercer neighborhood couple would take turns shuttling their daughter to and from nearby Hathaway Brown, which she began attending at age three.
So, Read understands the pressures of balancing work and family, and making sure that work time feels valuable. “It’s important to young lawyers to have a positive outlook on their work and work environment, to understand why they’re doing what they’re doing, how it fits into the bigger picture, and how it’s meaningful.”
Technology and alternative workplaces – working remotely – figure much more prominently in legal practice today. “It creates important opportunity, but it also creates challenges,” says Read. Lawyers working remotely are “less connected to the institution and to their colleagues, which means we have to work harder to make that connection.”
Remember, says Read, this is also a generation that wants contextual meaning in work; fostering connection and meaning are a much bigger challenge when employees and attorneys may be separated for days and sometimes weeks on end.
“Like any business, though, new challenges come up over time and your job is to find ways to master those challenges and make it work,” says Read.
That’s what CEOs do, after all.