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Brooks Pierce: Zen and the art of law firm management

Ask Ed Winslow, managing partner of Brooks Pierce McLendon Humphrey & Leonard, why his firm keeps growing and you won’t hear about amazing attorney billables, record-breaking verdicts, or state-of the-art technology (although the firm may have all of that).

Instead, he’ll tell you about how his people work in a “shared leadership” system and are learning how to better manage through programs at Greensboro’s Center for Creative Leadership; how the firm rejects an organizational hierarchy in favor of collaboration across departments; and how his attorneys strive to be the most creative, innovative problem-solvers in the state. Which they are, he’ll add.

Sound like a whole lot of New Age babble?

Maybe, but whatever is going on over at Brooks Pierce, it’s working.  The firm has grown steadily and rode through the recession with only a slight drop of attorneys in 2010.  Last year, its attorney numbers rose six percent from 82 to 87, and by September there will be 90 or more, Winslow said. And once those attorneys arrive, chances are they’ll stay — for good, as have most of the firm’s members.

That’s due in part to the firm’s culture. “We don’t have departments and we don’t have formally defined practice groups,” Winslow said.  “Departments and boundaries and hierarchies are at odds with the values that are needed to be the best professional.  The core dynamic, the thing that allows you deliver the greatest value, is if your professionals see across boundaries and are engaged with the whole project and make decisions about the whole of the project.”

The quintessential example is big complex litigation, Winslow said. “One way to approach it is to slice and dice it off.  Sure, somebody has to do all the different pieces. But if you set it up so that it’s a team engagement at every level, roles emerge and innovation happens,” he added.

That system also helped the firm weather the recession. “We’ve never been highly leveraged, and our professionals have never been narrowly specialized,” Winslow said.  “So that made us more agile in responding to the changes in the economy that started in 2008. We were able to redeploy our lawyers into other areas and we did not have to lay off anybody because of any change in the level of business.”

Of course the firm also did some practical things. “We were already efficient, but we did a very rigorous scrubbing of our expenses,” Winslow said. “And we benefited from being in Greensboro, where things are less costly.”  (The firm also has an office in Raleigh.)

Now, a quarter into 2012, Winslow is excited about new opportunities coming the firm’s way,    thanks to growth in the Triad, Triangle and North Carolina as a whole.  And needless to say, he is bullish on the Brooks Pierce system and the abilities of his people to meet those opportunities.

“Our particular system results in the development of creative, resilient problem solvers,” he said. “We don’t want to do what people call ‘process’ work.  We want problems, we want one-off circumstances, we want to be involved in important matters that require creative solutions, and I think we’ve got the best people easily in North Carolina to do that kind of work.”

— Sharon McCloskey

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