Law Firms: Akin Gump Fishes for General Counsel in the Corporate Pond
When Akin Gump decided to appoint a full-time general counsel to handle the firm's legal and risk management affairs, the big Washington, D.C. law firm decided to look for talent outside the firm.
Akin Gump, a leading international law firm with more than 900 lawyers, already had a part-time general counsel. But it decided it wanted someone who could take on the role full time and who had experience as a corporate general counsel.
After conducting a nationwide search through executive recruitment firm Korn/Ferry International, Akin Gump settled on Rick Goshorn, who joined the firm in October 2004. Before joining Akin Gump, Goshorn was general counsel at Acterna Corp, a public communications test equipment company. Before that, he held a variety of senior executive legal positions with London-based telecommunications company Cable and Wireless Plc from 1991 to 2001.
"It's a relatively new phenomenon for law firms to have full-time general counsels," Goshorn says. "In the past, they had tended to delegate the general counsel role to a number of partners."
Akin Gump is just one of a number of large law firms that have begun to appoint an attorney to the role of general counsel -- full time.
It is part of a trend by large law firms to organize themselves according to a more corporate model with MBAs serving as executive directors at the firm and by hiring chief financial officers and chief technology officers to take care of the business end of running the firm.
Having a general counsel as the point person for legal, ethical and risk matters also makes good business sense, Goshorn says. After the meltdown of Enron and the passage of Sarbanes-Oxley, good corporate governance has become a critical issue, not just for public companies but for private ones as well.
And as law firm risks and ethical issues become ever more volatile and complex, some large law firms are finding that they need someone to take on the job of general counsel on a full-time basis.
"It can be very challenging if you are also trying to practice law," Goshorn says. "My client is the firm and the firm comes first. That's all I'm thinking about. My paying client is Akin Gump. For others, there might be a tendency to push the firm's business to the back while you focus on the urgencies of your client," he says.
Not all law firms, however, can afford to have one attorney devote all of his or her time to the firm's own business. "Firms have to be of a certain size to justify it," Goshorn says.
While some law firms will appoint a senior attorney or partner from within the firm to take on the role of general counsel, some law firms want a general counsel with corporate experience.
There's a new wave of companies that want to hire someone who has done the job of general counsel at a corporation, Goshorn says. His mandate, he says, was: "Design, build and operate a corporate style general counsel capability for the firm."
Goshorn says his role as general counsel at Akin Gump is not all that different from his role as general counsel in the corporate world. Many of the same types of problems and challenges can arise. Law firms, like other businesses, have employment risks, as well as risks that can arise from their use of technology or from their properties in the United States and in foreign countries. Law firms also face professional liability risk in the form of malpractice suits.
"For a law firm, you are concerned about the quality of the services," he says. "It's not like we are selling widgets into the marketplace, but it's the same sorts of concerns. You want to make sure there are quality controls, that you're making sure the service you are providing for the top tier law firms is right at the very top in terms of quality," he says.
At top law firms, quality is not usually an issue. The problem is not so much the attorneys' work itself but the potential for liability arising from conflicts of interest or working for dishonest clients.
As general counsel, Goshorn has responsibility for the business intake process and setting up systems and processes to help the company avoid conflicts of interest. He also deputizes partners with special skills to handle various matters and has brought in experts to run educational and training programs at the firm.
Although he spends his time managing the firm's risk, he has never had formal training as a risk manager, Goshorn says.
"I would describe myself as a generalist, as a senior lawyer and executive. I've never been a risk management expert," he says.
But, he says: "I'm a problem solver. I know what I don't know. I know how to find answers to things. I think in some ways that's a good thing because I don't try to do it all myself."
October 15, 2006
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