Motivating a Team to Teach Me

Friday, March 2, 2018 - 14:33

McGuireWoods Chairman Jon Harmon, a veteran of Desert Storm, discusses his reliance on “servant leadership.” His remarks have been edited for length and style.

CCBJ: McGuireWoods expanded under your predecessors, going from a super-regional to a national firm. You’ve indicated that you want to build on that success. Where do you plan to take the firm? 

Jon Harmon: Richard Cullen and Tom Cabaniss did a tremendous job as chairman and managing partner, respectively, growing McGuireWoods into a leading national firm. We expanded from 700-plus lawyers to about 1,100 and opened new offices in California, Texas, London and Shanghai. The next step is to become a national powerhouse. Given our people and culture, I know we can achieve it.

I’ve discussed priorities with many of our firm leaders and will continue those conversations throughout 2018. We don’t grow for growth’s sake. We look for opportunities that enhance the service we provide to clients. Our focus will remain on developing innovative solutions to our clients’ business problems.

I believe a key to being a powerhouse firm is to go beyond the traditional legal counsel role to also be trusted business advisors who help clients prepare for emerging trends. For example, new challenges in data privacy and security and advances in big data and artificial intelligence are changing the way our clients do business across industries. The pace of change will accelerate as AI [artificial intelligence] and machine learning mature. We’ve expanded capabilities to address emerging issues pertaining to a range of technologies, from unmanned drones to surgical robotics to FinTech applications. Our public affairs arm, McGuireWoods Consulting, established an Emerging Technologies Team to augment the firm’s legal work with legislative capabilities in these areas.

Your background as a West Point graduate and veteran of Operation Desert Storm is pretty unusual for a law firm chair. What leadership lessons have you drawn from your military experience? 

I learned many valuable lessons in leadership at West Point and as an officer in the Army at Fort Hood and in Operation Desert Storm. After I graduated from West Point and entered the Army, I met many people in my platoon who had fought in Vietnam or other conflicts. It was humbling to lead soldiers who had more than 20 years of experience, and I didn’t want to make the mistake of thinking I would come in and dictate what we were going to do and how we were going to do it.

Early on, I learned the value of motivating a team to teach me. I believe in a “servant leadership” approach. Everyone on a team is important, regardless of rank. And when everyone is encouraged to step up and apply their skills and knowledge, they work better as a team to achieve an objective.

McGuireWoods has received high marks for client service, and you have been selected twice for BTI Consulting’s Client Service All-Star list. What are the keys to providing excellent client service?

Excellent client service boils down to figuring out what is most important to the client or the person on the other end of the phone. Everything you do is built on that foundation. Priorities, preferences and objectives are unique to each client and may change from case to case or deal to deal. While it is important to be responsive and to understand the client’s business, you also have to ask clients what they want so you can strategize from the outset on how best to achieve their goal. Effective communication comes from asking the question and listening, as opposed to making assumptions.

In most instances, client matters are handled by teams of lawyers, so it’s imperative that teams work together effectively and efficiently. Legal project management [LPM] is key to ensuring the efficient delivery of excellent client service. To that end, McGuireWoods developed a robust LPM program, called ClientSync, to enhance transparency and communications internally and with clients.

Collegiality is also fundamental to fostering the teamwork necessary to achieving clients’ goals. In fact, it’s one of McGuireWoods’ core values. I go back to the “servant leadership” approach because everyone’s contribution is vital to delivering a positive client experience and favorable result.

McGuireWoods was recently named the No. 3 most innovative firm in North America by the Financial Times. What does the firm do to drive innovative thinking among its lawyers and staff?

Innovation is part of our culture, and everyone at the firm is encouraged to contribute ideas. Our “Innovation at Work” program seeks out innovative ideas for serving clients and running our own business – ideas that are reviewed and rewarded by firm leaders. 

We’ve known for years that innovative thinking is critical to our competitive edge, so we’ve been focused on fostering innovation for some time now. We were quick to embrace legal project management. We have developed proprietary tools for budgeting and matter management. We are a pioneer in the creative use of alternative fee arrangements. We’ve built an outstanding e-discovery infrastructure. And we have partnered with clients and Legal Aid to develop new tools and systems for delivering pro bono service throughout Virginia, with plans to expand those models nationwide.

Our lawyers and internal technology team regularly collaborate on developing custom applications that analyze large sets of data and identify patterns, correlations and trends, and even predict potential areas of risk for clients. We also consult with outside experts like Axiom and IBM via their Watson project to gain fresh perspectives.

Technology is an important aspect of innovation, but it’s not the sole driver. A good example of low-tech innovation in my area is our “Trial Team Roundtables,” where our trial lawyers across practices join with clients for a day of brainstorming, issue spotting and story development. I’ve found that clients love the interactive experience, and we come away with effective trial strategies. Another example on the litigation side is a dual service provided by our Pre-Litigation and Third-Party Legal Process teams to help banks and fiduciaries resolve disputes before they escalate into costly litigation, and manage high-risk third-party matters to keep financial institutions from becoming targets of litigation. 

On the corporate side, we differentiate the firm through two critical services. We facilitate growth opportunities for clients by introducing them to investors whose interests align with theirs, and we build relationships through industry-focused events that present substantive thought leadership on important issues facing companies. Our Healthcare and Life Sciences Private Equity and Finance Conference, held each February in Chicago, is one example. Another is our Independent Sponsor Conference, which connects independent sponsors with capital providers. To my knowledge, McGuireWoods is among the first firms – if not the first – to take on a nationwide initiative like this.

Despite a great deal of effort, big law firms continue to struggle with diversity and inclusion. As chair, how can you help advance diversity and inclusion at ­McGuireWoods and in the profession generally?

It saddens me that the legal profession continues to struggle with the advancement of diversity and inclusion, particularly among the leadership ranks of large law firms. Roughly 30 percent of McGuireWoods’ leaders are women and minority lawyers. That’s a great start, but by no means does that mean we’ve arrived. There’s still much to be done, both at the firm and within the legal industry.

Advancing diversity and inclusion within the industry starts with law firms’ and legal departments’ hiring, retention and promotion strategies. McGuireWoods has innovated two important initiatives to advance these goals.

First, the firm leveraged in-house talent to develop a custom diversity dashboard that systematically identifies opportunities for recruiting, developing, promoting and retaining women and minority lawyers. It helps the firm compare its hiring activity in key markets with demographics of lawyers living in those cities who practice in particular areas of law. With this data, the firm can better analyze contributing factors behind its diversity numbers and develop informed strategies to ensure accountability.

Second, we have extended our diversity goals to firm vendors by implementing our Diverse Supplier Program, which supports our clients’ commitment to diversity and inclusion.

As chairman, I am committed to accelerating the firm’s progress in advancing diversity and inclusion.

You’re known for parachuting into difficult cases in tough venues and trying them successfully. What’s the most challenging matter you’ve been involved with, and what did you learn from it? 

There have been many challenging cases, and it’s hard to identify one over the others. Each case has something unique about it that makes it challenging and memorable. I’ve tried cases across the country, from courtrooms on the 50th floor of a city skyscraper to converted gun shops with portable toilets. What works in one jurisdiction may not in another. As a young lawyer, I learned that understanding a community or company’s culture is critical to winning almost any case.

This was particularly true in a three-week trial I led in Hampton, South Carolina. Hampton is notorious for being a plaintiff-friendly jurisdiction. It’s incredibly difficult to win a corporate case there. Forbes once rated it the No. 1 judicial hellhole in America. One of the reasons Hampton was such a difficult venue is that it’s a small, close-knit community where everyone knows each other. So you can imagine how the personal connections in that courtroom created obstacles. The jury selection was particularly hostile. The plaintiff’s lawyer’s former clients even sat on the jury.

The case involved a girl who suffered a brain injury after the car her mother was driving was struck by a
train. The plaintiff sought $40 million and alleged my client was negligent in operating one of its trains and failed to clear vegetation at a crossing, making it difficult to see the oncoming locomotive. We needed to be sensitive to the tragedy the plaintiffs had endured. Our message to the jury was that the plaintiffs were in a safe place, but made an unsafe choice. The jury returned a unanimous defense verdict.


McGuireWoods Chairman Jon Harmon represents Fortune 500 companies in bet-the-company litigation across the country. His clients include some of the largest U.S. financial institutions as well as telecommunications giants and leading automotive, food and product manufacturers. His business litigation practice spans complex commercial, fraud, class-action, insurance fraud, complex business/civil tort, environmental, product liability, employment, construction, toxic tort and federal or state protected whistleblower cases. He can be reached at jharmon@mcguirewoods.com.