Eric Friedman of Skadden: Inside BTI Consulting’s Most Elite Legal Brand

The following post originally appeared on Forbes | June 9, 2015

Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom tops numerous league tables and rankings, set apart from other highly regarded firms by its success across many practices, in multiple industries, and around the globe. The breadth of Skadden’s capabilities sits in stark contrast to those elite firms whose skills are focused in select practice areas or regions. With approximately 400 partners and 23 offices, Skadden’s ability to maintain such a powerful brand, such a heightened level of prestige, and such an unwavering standard of excellence throughout its practices and global offices makes it, as Malcom Gladwell might describe, an outlier.

Today I speak with Eric Friedman, Skadden’s executive partner, to better understand how they’ve achieved their success over the years, including locking up their fourth year at the number one spot in BTI Consulting’s “Brand Elite” ranking. See our exchange below.

On Building the Best Brand

Parnell: Let’s start at the beginning and talk about the Skadden brand. This is your fourth year at the top of BTI Consulting’s “Brand Elite” ranking. Where brands are concerned, there are a lot of moving parts that go into building them. Could you talk to me about that? How has Skadden gone about establishing its brand and continuing to get this award?

Friedman: It’s a mix of what we do and how we do it. The breadth of our practices and the depth of our expertise combined with our geographic footprint set us apart. We also have an incredibly strong, collaborative culture that drives how we work with our clients, and how we work together across practices and geographies. We go above and beyond for clients, tailoring our advice to help them achieve their objectives. Ultimately, all of these factors enable us to achieve outstanding results. If you get all of that right, clients notice.

On the Personality of Skadden’s Culture

Parnell: Could you describe the personality of your culture?

Friedman: Despite the brand recognition, we still act like the underdogs. We’re a firm that really puts clients first, has the highest ethical standards, and is incredibly collaborative. We never take these values for granted. Our culture of responsiveness, collaboration, and client service permeates everything we do, and it’s how we bring our expertise to bear for clients. Preserving that culture is a big part of our firm strategy.

On Institutional Clients

Parnell: Institutional clients are certainly what everybody wants — clients that are coming back time and again. When you look at any of the long-standing relationships that you have as a firm, how have you gone about solidifying those? What have you done to earn that client loyalty?

Friedman: It really all begins with great lawyering, because great work attracts new client opportunities. So our emphasis on recruiting and developing top legal talent is a crucial part of what we do.  Collaborating with clients, tapping into their expertise, and keeping their overall business objectives top of mind ultimately builds a sense of confidence, camaraderie, and loyalty.

Add to this a healthy dose of persistence. We don’t rest on our laurels or take client loyalty for granted. We’re always working to identify ways we can add value. It’s a natural way of staying close with clients, and it’s appreciated.

Parnell: Do you have any sort of formalized follow-up process with your clients?

Friedman: While we conduct periodic check-ins with many of our clients, the process of soliciting and receiving feedback tends to happen more organically. When it’s all working right, it’s because you’ve built a client-centric culture with ongoing communication. Formal processes shouldn’t be a substitute for regular and proactive client engagement.

On the Evolution of the Legal Market

Parnell: Looking at the legal market from a macro-view, what are the major changes that you’ve seen over, say, the last 10 to 20 years?

Friedman: From an industry perspective, clients are increasingly discerning about counsel selection and what they want as an outside counsel service model. They are using fewer firms, and are requiring more and more from them.  This manifests itself in a greater need for law firms to truly understand their clients’ businesses and deliver integrated advice across multiple practices and geographies in an extremely efficient manner.

The external dynamic of globalization also is a factor as current regulatory developments tend to cross jurisdictions and many companies see international expansion as the key avenue for growth. In the U.S. there is an increasing amount of importance placed on specializations that respond to the current environment. Many industries — for example, energy, financial institutions, and health care — have experienced an elevated degree of government enforcement and participation, which requires a heightened degree of outside counsel specialization.

Parnell: Have there been pointed shifts in your strategy to accommodate these changes, or is this something that you are just organically prepared to handle?

Friedman: It has been both a strategic and an organic evolution. To best serve our clients, we’re investing more in the training and development of all of our attorneys. Brand new attorneys joining us from law school are put through an intensive five-week training program before they begin work on any client matters. This program combines practical and legal skills development with MBA-like course curriculums. This means that, from the beginning of lawyers’ careers at Skadden, they are prepared to handle their clients’ most important legal problems. For our senior attorneys, and at partner level, we’ve partnered with programs from Harvard Law School,  Harvard Business School, and Columbia Business School to develop leadership training modules.

As I mentioned, legal consumers are discerning. We are very focused on ensuring we have the right specialized expertise and capabilities. If you look at the newest partners we’ve promoted, overwhelmingly, they’ve had significant specific experience in key markets and practices based on where clients have growing legal needs. As an example, cross-border transactions and multijurisdictional disputes and regulatory issues are increasingly important to our clients. And this is reflected in our new partner hires over the past 12 months: We made key additions to our M&A teams in Paris and London, our international arbitration and litigation team in London, and our tax controversy team in Washington D.C. A number of our newest partners also have worked in the government, bringing an additional specialized perspective on regulatory developments to our global team.

On Skadden’s Strategy

Parnell: Now, could you talk to me about your firm’s strategy at a macro-level? What are you looking to do over the next five years?

Friedman: We want to continue to be the go-to firm for our clients’ most important legal issues. This also means positioning ourselves to continue to attract top legal talent because our success is based upon our people. We hire the best and the brightest, invest in their development, and provide them opportunities for incredible on-the-job experience and training. This cycle translates into great outcomes for clients. This organic approach to growth also helps us maintain our strong culture of creativity and collaboration, which, in turn helps us achieve successful client results. We always are looking ahead to identify where there may be additional opportunities to serve clients in their high-stakes legal needs, or in a new geography, sector, or practice.

On Skadden’s Expansion

Parnell: So how are you deciding where, specifically, you are going to expand your footprint? What is directing that? I’m assuming client needs, but if you could talk to me about that.

Friedman: Our growth is typically driven by our clients’ objectives. And as they expand into new areas or new markets, we have positioned ourselves to meet those needs. When we enter new markets, we’re also able to form relationships with new local clients that we also can serve across our platform.

For instance, last year we opened an office in Seoul, Korea. It serves a dual purpose: We can represent our Korean corporate clients in their outbound aspirations for investment, transactions, and financings, and to the extent that they confront them, their litigation and government enforcement matters around the globe. Our Seoul office also better enables us to guide our existing clients in transacting in Korea.

On Building Cohesiveness Within the Firm

Parnell: Could you talk to me about how you are incentivizing collaboration across the firm? How is Skadden going about doing this?

Friedman: Similarly to how effective communication with clients happens organically, collaboration works best when it is the result of everyone’s interests being aligned toward a common goal. All of our attorneys are focused on achieving the best outcomes for clients.  Collaborating to obtain the best results is very natural for us.

On Diversity and Pro Bono

Parnell: So, regarding diversity and inclusion; there are a lot of studies and a lot of pieces in the media that ground the practicality of diversity. Can you talk to me about that? How does Skadden handle diversity?

Friedman: Diversity in the profession and within the firm is a Skadden priority, and we’ve initiated a variety of programming designed to make more progress in these areas.  For example, in November we hosted all of our black attorneys from around the globe — and included clients, alumni, partners, and senior firm management — for a one and a half day conference focused on career development and leadership.  We also launched our Straight-LGBT Alliance in 2014 to solidify the framework through which our straight and LGBT colleagues work together on LGBT inclusion, and partner with clients that have similar goals.  A highlight of our women’s initiatives is a robust leadership program we piloted, and plan to expand, for some of our highly regarded senior associates and counsel.  And we have a number of affinity networks that promote programs to foster an inclusive, supportive community. We also created a unique internship program — the Skadden 1L Scholars Program — that provides law students with an interest in diversity an opportunity to spend six weeks of their summer at Skadden, followed by four weeks at a firm client, and in some instances, at a public interest organization to gain experience in both public and private practice.

Beyond the firm, we develop and support initiatives to increase racial and socio-economic diversity in the larger legal community, as well.  Among them is the Skadden Honors Program in Legal Studies at City College of New York which aims to increase awareness about the possibilities of a career in law for CCNY undergrads.  The program provides skills, training, and mentorship to help students gain admission to law school and ultimately succeed as lawyers.

 On the Practicality of Pro Bono Work

Parnell: This question may seem like it has an obvious answer, but what are the practical benefits to Skadden’s pro bono work? More pointedly, how are your pro bono efforts helping the development of your attorneys?

Friedman: First and foremost, it’s real work, supervised at the most senior levels, and designed to be delivered with the same caliber of excellence as other client work. It provides equally valuable development and training opportunities and adds another dimension to what it means to practice law at the highest levels.

When we started this conversation, you mentioned that Skadden has the best brand in the industry and asked how we maintain this distinction. Pro bono work isn’t severable from all that we’ve talked about. We believe giving back to, and being an integral part of, the communities where we practice is a big part of what it means to be a lawyer.

Most recently, we have taken our pro bono efforts to the next level with our “Impact Project” through which participating offices take on at least one major pro bono initiative, often working with clients, in addition to other pro bono matters. Our offices around the globe are highly coordinated in their focus on each of their chosen issues, including guardianship, veterans’ rights, housing, domestic violence, children’s rights,  and health care.

We are also very proud of the Skadden Fellowship Program, which was founded 27 years ago and awards two-year public interest fellowships to about 28 young lawyers each year so that they can practice in the nonprofit sector on a full-time basis. Ninety-five percent of the former Skadden Fellows still work in the public sector.

On the Future of the Legal Market

Parnell: How do you see the legal market evolving over the next five to ten years?

Friedman: There is a bifurcation happening in the market. We observe increasing commoditization of certain workflows and work streams, and there will be firms that are happy to focus their legal advice on that more commoditized market.

At the same time, there’s heightened specialization, fueled by increased government intervention and the complexities of increased globalization. For these needs, clients will turn to a law firm with a global platform, a culture that allows it to collaborate efficiently across its platform, and experience navigating uniquely challenging issues. That’s where Skadden intends to maintain its focus.