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May 01, 2022

Sustaining a Successful Law Firm

Collaboration, cross-selling, collegiality and client service are the core values crucial to Adams and Reese’s success.

Gif Thornton
A commitment to core values equips us to face the ever-changing landscape of law practice and chart a path for success.

A commitment to core values equips us to face the ever-changing landscape of law practice and chart a path for success.

iStock / monkeybusinessimages

The 70th anniversary of the firm coincided with our annual partners retreat, where we host firm attorneys for a weekend of business meetings, practice team meetings, panel discussions and fellowship.

The retreat was cancelled in 2020 due to the pandemic. It was clear that our people were ready to be together again, notwithstanding the lingering presence of COVID-19. Add Hurricane Ida to the mix, and it would have been easy to wave it off for another year.

We opted to go forward. At the opening reception on the outdoor terrace at the Omni Grove Park Inn in Asheville, North Carolina, our marketing staff was filming video vignettes with individual lawyers about their best memories of Adams and Reese. When I took my turn, I found I was unable to speak, as I was overcome with emotion.

Maybe that is what success feels like.

Adams and Reese’s success is rooted in our core values, including collaboration, cross-selling, collegiality and client service. We operate from a five-year strategic plan, which is printed on two sides of one page; I carry it in my pad holder for daily reference.


Great company culture is inextricably linked to dedicated partners and employees who enjoy their work and working together. Our secret sauce begins with the concept of collaboration. We recruit, train and advance people who want to be part of a team. We have grown the firm with a practice area focus, rather than an office-based approach. We have no “home office.” Management is dispersed around our 19 offices. Rather than seeking redundancy in expertise in every geographic market, we have built a seamless network. Our people work closely across office lines. We build client teams based on the expertise needed, rather than where someone sits. In this sense we were unusually well-prepared for the remote work required by the pandemic. We had the technology in place to work outside the office, and our culture was already suited to working with colleagues who were not sitting in the next office down the hall.

While we deploy current technological tools and practices to promote virtual connections, there is no substitute for in-person contact. That is one of the reasons we spend a significant sum every year on the partner retreat. Historically, we have done the same with an annual meeting. Perhaps more importantly, we encourage practice teams to meet in person on a periodic basis to build and deepen relationships that drive client service and, ultimately, client revenue and firm profit.


A question for prospective lateral groups or merger candidates is: “By joining forces, can we capture revenue and profit that is better than what we could do operating separately?” or “Does 1+1= 3?”

We grew into an Am Law 200 firm by bringing our current book of business, meeting and developing relationships with new partners, then promoting our partners and their expertise to our existing clients. A culture of cross-selling has built a bigger client base where we provide a wider array of services to each client. Our accounting, compensation and partner-nominating systems are structured to promote teamwork and cross-selling.


When I am recruiting laterals or merger partners, I often ask: “Who do you want to get old with?” Seventy years of practice together have taught us to take the long view and to look at the big picture. Life is too long to spend your days working with people you do not like. Conversely, it is rich and deeply satisfying to face the challenges and opportunities of law practice in the 21st century with people you genuinely enjoy.

A word here about COVID protocols. Obviously, the safety of our partners and employees was—and continues to be—paramount. Like most firms, when the pandemic landed in March 2020, we moved to a remote work protocol. However, unlike most firms, we did not stay remote long.

As we applied the governmental guidance to our office layout, it was apparent that we could maintain six feet of separation easily in our customary workspaces. We could mask in the common areas and practice optimal hygiene. We began repopulating our offices in May 2020, subject to any individual state and local restrictions. We have been back in our offices ever since. We encouraged our people to secure the available vaccinations and boosters, and I am pleased to report that even in the absence of a firm mandate almost everyone has chosen to do so. While we have our share of people testing positive, especially with the arrival of the Omicron variant, the best evidence is that we have fared better than the general population. There is a strong argument that we are safer working in the office daily than we would be otherwise.

As I read legal periodical articles about firms grappling with return-to-work policies and how to sustain law firm culture, I just smile, thankful to lead a firm where our people want to be together.

Client service

In the quest to do everything else right, we must be careful to keep our eyes on the ball. Our very existence depends on our clients. Maintaining and building client relationships (and the revenue and profit that accompany them) demands a laser focus. It cannot “go without saying.” To that end, we initiated a firm-wide excellence initiative in 2018 to ensure that everything we do, we do with excellence. We followed that in 2019 with a fresh client service initiative that fosters and rewards excellence in client service. We begin every meeting of the firm with a client service minute, whether it is a weekly practice group leader call, a practice team meeting or a monthly meeting of our executive committee.

We aim to know and understand our clients, their businesses, their current needs and their future plans. We are thankful for the many national awards we have received as a firm for our service to clients. We are even more gratified by the steady stream of client feedback that testifies to our performance in ensuring excellence in client service. The many long-term relationships we have built with our clients is our greatest honor, and it is ultimately how we measure our success.

One simple but powerful way we punctuate the point is a weekly email, sent on Friday afternoons, that recognizes an example of excellent client service. We call it “Friday Good News.” It has the dual benefit of promoting the right things and sending everyone home for the week on a positive note.

Fostering community

Technology is advancing in ways that make it possible to work anywhere, anytime. Virtual firms are emerging. Social mores among different generations suggest not all lawyers are looking for the same thing in their professional lives. The pandemic is accelerating these trends, requiring action from law firm leadership.

At Adams and Reese, we have opted to double down on our core values. At a time when the means of community are threatened, we are implementing new ways for our people to stay connected. We believe firmly that people want to live in a community, to belong, to be part of a team, to be part of something bigger than themselves.

With nearly 500 employees across the Southeast and Washington, D.C., we work hard to ensure our people stay connected. For years I have called each partner and employee on his or her birthday. You might be surprised at how impactful that is. When we went remote briefly in 2020, we created a weekly virtual meeting for all firm personnel for 15 minutes on Wednesday morning, the “Water Cooler.” We provide information of general interest. We introduce new lawyers and their practices. We feature key staff and their roles. We recognize personal milestones. It has been well-received, particularly among our staff. I expect we will continue to use this long after the pandemic is behind us.

Leading with transparency

Another choice leadership made years ago is to operate with transparency. Partners have access to the financial data of the firm. They can access production information for themselves and anyone else. I report, generally in writing, each month. I hold quarterly meetings on Teams for all equity partners. I hold weekly meetings of our practice group leaders and partners in charge of each office and monthly meetings with all practice team leaders. These are tight, information-packed and interactive. Knowledge is power. Keeping our leadership team informed equips them to lead effectively in their respective lanes of traffic.

We have found that operating transparently has built trust, confidence and loyalty among our people. Ultimately, it is another driver of revenue and profit.

In sum, our success over 70 years lies in our commitment to clear core values, set forth and refreshed regularly in a strategic plan that leads to clear management priorities each year, as determined by our executive committee. We know who we are, where we came from and where we want to go together. That clarity allows us to absorb unexpected external events like a worldwide pandemic. It equips us to face the ever-changing landscape of law practice and chart a path for success—hopefully for another 70 years and beyond.

Gif Thornton

Managing Partner, Adams and Reese LLP

Gif Thornton is managing partner of Adams and Reese LLP in Nashville, Tennessee. [email protected]

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