Career Development

As Clients Do More with Less, Firms Face Rising Expectations

J. Tracy Walker, managing partner of McGuireWoods, discusses giving up a hot trial practice for broader client horizons.

CCBJ: You earned your bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering. What led you to pursue a career in law?

J. Tracy Walker IV: My dad wanted me to be an engineer, but my heart was not set on that career. I greatly enjoyed engineering school, and I remain a big fan of an engineering education. Much of the learning is through team-based problem solving, much like the case method in business school. It is terrific preparation for a career in law. I did not know what I wanted to do. My sister was in law school. We were very competitive. I thought, if she’s doing that, why don’t I give it a try? But what really sold me was my first job after my One L year in law school. l worked at a midsize firm in Richmond and bonded with the group of trial lawyers I was working with. I never looked back.

In your career as a top trial lawyer, you’ve served as national trial class action and appellate counsel for various manufacturers, including one of the world’s largest automakers. Client attitudes have changed over the course of your career. Has your approach to representation evolved?

I have been fortunate to represent a variety of clients with different approaches and attitudes. One difference in recent years – and maybe it’s not so much an attitude as a way of doing business – is that our clients ­increasingly expect the in-house lawyers to do more with less. That translates out to the law firms. There is a high expectation of efficiency and innovation. Our clients expect us to add value outside the narrow scope of a particular engagement.

For myself, I hope in one sense that I have been consistent throughout my career in having complete and unfettered dedication to client service and excellent work. Excellence and service are important along the entire continuum of experience and ­responsibility, from young associates to senior partners. I also hope I’ve become wiser. One thing that I have learned over a period of years is that zealous representation and ­aggressive representation are very different things. The most effective lawyers frequently are the least aggressive lawyers, whether it’s in a courtroom or a boardroom. Professionalism has become all the more important in today’s go-go, 24/7 world, and it is something we need to continue to pass down to younger lawyers – the sense that aggressiveness has nothing to do with professionalism.

You’ve recently become managing partner of McGuireWoods. It’s my understanding that you plan to give up your litigation practice. What will you miss most about trial practice, and what will you miss least?

I have been too busy since taking this role in December to miss anything. But if you were to ask me a year from now, I think it’s working regularly with other trial lawyers. I can’t really describe it, but trial lawyers are just a different breed of cat that I like being around. I’ll also miss the courtroom. I have always found great serenity being in a courtroom, even in the midst of a pitched battle.

The neat thing for me is that I’m now getting the opportunity to meet a broader range of clients and talk to them about bigger-picture issues. Thankfully, some of the other trial lawyers at McGuireWoods still involve me by asking me to brainstorm on strategy. So my new role has freed me up to get involved in more for a broader set of clients. It’s exhilarating in that regard.

The thing I will miss least is discovery. Enough said about that.

Many contributors to CCBJ are significant players in e-discovery. Given how many firms rely on e-discovery support, why has McGuireWoods chosen to invest in a significant in-house e-discovery team?

Discovery is incredibly important, and e-discovery is now the most significant part of discovery outside of depositions and the like. On significant matters, it’s important that the discovery team be a full partner in the entire matter. We can deliver the efficiency of an e-discovery vendor, but also capture the benefits of having a discovery team fully invested in the entire case. Our e-discovery team also spends a good amount of time consulting with our clients on their own internal discovery systems – resources, policies, procedures.

The other benefit we get from an in-house team concerns technology. Much of the development of new technologies in the areas of AI and data analytics is coming from the discovery realm. Those tools are going to have broad application across all aspects of litigation. By having e-discovery teams at the firm, we’re in on the front end of much of that.

Given the many changes in the legal profession, what ­advice would you give to future trial lawyers?

There has been a dramatic decline in the number of civil trials. There’s no sign that that trend is going to change. I have a trial lawyer background, and I think civil trials are important to the health of our judicial system. But for a variety of reasons there are fewer of them, and fewer opportunities for young lawyers to develop a trial lawyer’s skillset. The best bet for a young lawyer who truly has her heart set on being a trial lawyer is to spend time working in a prosecutor’s office handling criminal trials. There is great opportunity, and the skillset can be applied later in the civil arena or in arbitration.

How does McGuireWoods set itself apart in a way that resonates with clients and prospective clients?

I have to leave it to our clients and prospective clients to say what sets us apart. What we focus on relentlessly is client service and excellence.

It’s a given today that lawyers should handle their matters efficiently and effectively, but the very best lawyers and firms take it a step further. They have to know their clients’ businesses and industries and look for ways to add value and move the needle outside the narrow scope of a particular matter, whether it’s through innovation, long-term shaping of the law, or whatever it might be.

Another recent trend is that clients expect their outside law firms to partner with each other. You frequently have multiple law firms serving a client on a particular issue or matter. Those firms have to work together as partners. We think about all of these things at McGuireWoods as being full partners with our clients in meeting their broader business needs. I hope and believe that’s what we’re known for.

We have interviewed a number of women in leadership positions at McGuireWoods. Given the struggle the profession has had in moving the needle on diversity, what specific efforts has the firm made?

Diversity and inclusion is a core value at our firm. We focus on it and talk about it every day. With regard to gender ­diversity specifically, we believe we have made good progress increasing the number of women in firm leadership ­positions and amongst our partner ranks. Like most firms, we have a diversity and inclusion committee, as well as various affinity groups. The D&I committee develops inward-­facing and client-facing diversity initiatives.

On top of that, we have a diversity action council that I chair that’s comprised of firm leaders that actively monitors our performance in hiring, retention, career development and advancement. We continuously look at specific metrics to ensure that we are progressing. It’s important that women lawyers and lawyers of color and LGBT lawyers are all well positioned not only to participate on an equal footing in everything that we do, but to thrive and take leadership roles on client teams, on practice teams and in the management of the firm. We’re committed to making that happen.

To provide a few more specifics, among other things we have a Women Lawyers Network that sponsors leadership training for our women associates, and it hosts internal and client-facing networking events. Just recently, in an exciting development, we partnered with JPMorgan Chase in launching its Leading with Diversity Initiative, which is designed to increase the number of women and minorities who are taking a leading role in the courtroom. There is much still to be done, but we are enthusiastically embracing that challenge every day.

What do you expect McGuireWoods to look like in five to 10 years?

We’ve had steady growth over the past decade in revenue, profitability and our geographic footprint. We are privileged to work with great companies across many key industries, frequently taking on their most important issues. I have every expectation that will hold steady and that in 10 years McGuireWoods will continue to be known as a leader in client service helping clients meet their most difficult challenges. The faces at the firm are going to be different, but I expect it will be a highly diverse, thriving firm well known for its excellent lawyers.

McGuireWoods managing partner J. Tracy Walker IV focuses his practice on product liability, consumer class action and commercial litigation at the trial and appellate levels and handles complex matters in jurisdictions throughout the country, trying cases to verdict in numerous states. Reach him at [email protected].

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