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Business Observer Friday, Nov. 7, 2003 14 years ago

From Good...To Great (Tampa edition)

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Ninety minutes with Tom Snow, president and CEO of Carlton Fields, one of Florida's largest law firms.

From Good...To Great (Tampa edition)

Ninety minutes with Tom Snow, president and CEO of Carlton Fields, one of Florida's largest law firms.

By Hali White

Legal Affairs Editor

As president and CEO of Carlton Fields PA, Tom Snow, 56, is charged with leading one of the Tampa Bay area's largest law firms with 212 lawyers and $79.5 million in revenue.

Snow takes his charge seriously.

One of the first management books he read after taking the helm in 1996 was "Built to Last" by Jim Collins and Jerry Porras. And last year, Snow read Collins' book, "Good to Great," which examines the common traits of good companies that became great companies.

"The theme of the book is that good is the enemy of great," Snow says. "If you're good, your tendency as a business and a person is to be satisfied with that. Nonetheless, some companies go on to become great companies."

It's a theme Snow embraces. Six months ago, he instituted the Client Focus Program, a set of guidelines for dealing with clients. The program is detailed in a handbook that sets forth both small and big ideas for client interaction. The program includes the seemingly obvious: lawyers should cultivate familiar, if not downright friendly, relationships with their clients. A more sophisticated idea: every practice group within the firm should have a client relationship manager who acts as a liaison between the client and the firm.

Client Focus details the role of everyone associated with the firm, from the switchboard operator all the way to the top.

"There's job for me in here," Snow says. "One of my main jobs is to visit with our clients during the year, ask them how we're doing, how we can improve in delivering legal services to them and how we can improve for all of our clients. What I can do better as an attorney for Ford is probably going to help me do a better job for Wachovia."

Under Snow's direction, the firm recently launched a new marketing campaign - retiring its image as a Florida law firm and recasting itself as a firm capable of handling sophisticated corporate matters throughout the United States.

Also, under Snow's watchful eye, the firm will leave its Harbour Island digs in July for Corporate Center Three, still under construction at International Plaza on Boy Scout Boulevard in the West Shore business district. The firm, which has been at One Harbour Place since 1985, will occupy three floors, about 90,000 square feet, in the new building. Snow won't discuss the terms of the lease.

Snow joined Carlton Fields about 20 years ago, after serving as in-house counsel for Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Co., and later for Aetna Business Credit.

AV rated by Martindale-Hubbell, Snow practices in the area of secured financing, representing both lenders and borrowers. The Illinois native is a 1974 graduate of the Boston University School of Law.

West Shore v. downtown

"Traditionally, a law firm like Carlton Fields is in the downtown financial district. My own view is that we need to take a long view and that increasingly, where you are located is irrelevant because most of the business you do is over the phone or the Internet. The majority of our time with respect to our litigation is either in the office or through the Internet or in courts, regionally and out of the state. So all the reasons why a law firm like Carlton Fields needed to be in the downtown financial district are no longer the case.

"So the first step was to make that decision. The second was to talk to our clients. I did that personally with many clients-asking them their view. Virtually 100% were either, it doesn't make any difference to us, or we think that's a good move.

"The building, because it's new, will provide a platform for more modern and future technology. This (current office building) is getting on 18 years old and there are no new buildings downtown. Everyone knows technology is a critical feature of any business these days. And for a law firm that represents Fortune 500 companies as we do - we absolutely positively have need for very speedy and secure communications. All of which involve the Internet and the latest and greatest in technology.

"We talk about the proximity to the airport as an advantage, but the truth is, whether you're fifteen minutes from the airport, which we are now, or five minutes from it, if the difference is 10 minutes, that's not enough reason to move files. Likewise in terms of access to downtown and the courts and being part of the downtown community, that 10-minute differential is nothing."

A changing look

"The image we projected in our initial website, a good image and I think the right tactic at that time, was that we were the Florida law firm for out of state companies that had needs for legal services in Florida. So the initial website had a very Florida look to it. The visuals were palm tree, beach, that kind of thing. We had very favorable responses to it by national marketing people. ¦

"Of course you don't want to abandon something that's working for you. But increasingly the firm has a legal services platform that extends out of the state so to continue to project an image that we were available if you needed a lawyer in Florida was limiting from that standpoint. So one of the goals was to present a website that didn't create the appearance of such limited client activity.

"While we were overhauling the Web site, we coordinated all of our marketing material so there was a distinct and common look in the interest of - I guess people call that branding. The consultants tell us that it's very difficult if not impossible to brand a law firm.

"And none of us wants to throw the millions of dollars that are necessary to create a brand image for a law firm, as you might with Coke where they do throw millions and millions of dollars so that when you do pick up a bottle of coke - it's bringing with it, almost emotions. You can hardly do that with a law firm."

Focus on people

"One of the principal decisions we made when we put together that Web site was to present the image of the firm that is comprised of people. We don't have pictures of blind justice or scales or courthouses or technology stuff or old buildings. We have pictures of people. Our view of our firm is that it's people. From my standpoint, I know that every single night a 100% of my assets walk out the door. We don't sell things and we don't have machines that make things. Every night my assets go home. Any law firm is that way. Consequently, one of my biggest concerns from the management side is that I want them to come back the next day."

Focus on clients

"What we've done is institutionalize a way of thinking (about clients). The staff is a very important part of a client relationship. We've institutionalized the concept into a program that addresses means to establish and grow client relationships. And to be capable of rendering improved legal services through the use of concepts and tools. Everyone has a job in this. ¦

"We're organized primarily by statewide practice groups. We address what they should do. One of the most important features for the practice groups is that every client should have a client relationship manager. And there's a list of responsibilities for the relationship manager - to learn everything we should know about the client and visit the client. Survey the client satisfaction in the middle of matters and at the end of matters." (The firm brings in their clients, gives them lunch and asks what they expect from the lawyers at Carlton Fields.)

Management style

"I'm confident that if you asked people about my management style, that people would say I'm very formal and not overly accessible. I guess that's the case. I'm 56 years old and I've learned about myself. My own style is that I work very hard and a lot of the work I do involves being behind my desk communicating on the phone and through e-mail. I don't spend a great deal of time walking the halls. I don't spend nearly the time I ought to visiting the other offices, making a showing. There's clearly a place for that. I wish I did do it more. I wish I had the appearance of being more accessible. I wish I was out working or visiting with our attorneys more, (but) I don't say this with any regret or self-criticism. Everybody has their style and I'm very confident that my style has worked for Carlton Fields and the firm is doing extremely well."

In fact, the firm ranked first in associate job satisfaction among all large firms in the 2002 midlevel associate surveys by the American Lawyer, and first nationally in the summer associate surveys. The Florida Commission of the Status of Women named Carlton Fields one of the best Florida employers of working women in 2000, and the Florida Bar awarded it its Gender Friendly Award in 1998.

Challenges

"The goal and the challenge at the same time is to assure that we remain competitive and are capable of continually attracting clients to hire us to do high-end, interesting, intellectually challenging work. To me that's the target at all times. That's why we're here. How do we make sure that happens? One, the legal business is very competitive. Not only for acquiring the work, but also a competitive business to be able to attract attorneys capable of performing at those high levels. We have to be reasonably profitable to make that happen. ¦

"One of the key roles in terms of being the CEO, whether it's a law firm or any other sort of business or organization, is to establish the current benchmarks of the organization, the current capabilities of the organization and establish how those can be improved. And then very deliberately close that gap. As you're closing the gap, you also should be raising the bar. It's a constant process.

"At Carlton Fields, one of the first initiatives I undertook myself was for our attorneys to establish a keen and deep awareness of the economics of the practice. The law is a great profession. It's also a business."

A trap

"In professional firms like law firms, there's a tendency and I would say somewhat of a trap, for firm management to be looking short term, to be looking at the current year as the primary goal and not invest in the future.

"Where that translates for me or for Carlton Fields is to recognize there is the tension. It's certainly important for us to have year after year current excellent results. It's also important for us to maintain institutional value and invest in that institutional value for the long term.

"For example, technology is a significant investment by a law firm. If I had a partner intending to retire in two years and all that person cared about was his or her tenure with Carlton Fields, that person would not be too keen on a substantial investment in technology that was gong to be made immediately but would inure to the benefit of the firm for then next four years. Fortunately, the firm long ago crossed the bridge to understand that it's an institution.

"¦You take a look at the abuses that came out with Enron and the like. Much of that was driven because the Street was demanding not just year-to-year financial success and earnings result, but they were demanding quarterly results. They didn't care about new products being developed, didn't care about new investments for the future for the companies they were advising their constituents to invest in. They wanted current earnings on a quarterly basis. Consequently, that's where many companies focused. Well, we know the result of all that. There were abuses and certainly a lack of investment in the future.

"How that translates more practically, would be for example, we have a very proactive strategy in investing in technology in an even basis. Every year we invest substantial capital into technology whereas we could distribute that revenue. But we'll put it into technology that will help us - not technology (just) to have doo-dads. We'll invest in new attorneys. It's essential for firms to budget for very measured growth."

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