October 23, 2012

Leading with an Open Mind

Law Practice Magazine

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October/November 2008 Issue | Volume 34 Number 7| Page 38

Leadership Profile

Leading with an Open Mind


  • Partner, Holland & Hart
  • Former Chair, Holland & Hart Management Committee
  • Former Chair, Holland & Hart Natural Resources Department

BRIDGING THE GAP. Talk about trial by fire—when Anne Castle took charge of Holland & Hart in 2002, she was thrust into a contentious quandary that threatened to pull apart the Denver-based partnership.

The law firm was handling a series of mass-tort and contingency-fee cases that were considered controversial in terms of substance and, perhaps more immediately, profitability. That is, they could erode the firm’s bottom line. Several of the partners had very serious and vocal concerns about the firm taking on such cases. “And justifiably so,” says Castle, who was the first woman to serve as chair of Holland & Hart’s management committee. “It wasn’t a situation in which people were off base. This was a very serious challenge that I had to deal with during my term as chair.”

To resolve the predicament, Castle took an inclusive, open-minded managerial approach—by first listening carefully to the concerns of those who opposed the cases as well as to the viewpoints of those who supported taking on this type of work. She wanted to assimilate the myriad pros and cons these cases presented so she could tackle the thorny job of mediating between the two sides.

“After hearing both perspectives,” she says, “I could then go to each group and in a candid way articulate the concerns of the other side of the table. Of course, like any problem in a law firm, there were misconceptions, gaps in the facts and snap conclusions. And so if you have someone in a position of authority who is listening carefully, he or she can sit down with you and say, ‘Okay, I’ve heard your concerns, but were you aware of this? Have you thought about that? And if you knew all this information, would you reach the same conclusion?’”

Not surprisingly, this outreach-and-mediation effort took a lot of time. But it did help to defuse the situation. In fact, Castle deftly helped navigate the firm through the labyrinth, with the partnership keeping the cases in question but adding a framework of control and review that hadn’t been there in the past, and also instituting a new policy designed to prevent the firm from getting into that situation again.

The moment was made all the more significant because even before Castle won election as the firm’s chair, some partners in a branch office outside Denver had made it clear that they were worried about how she’d handle this looming controversy. And apparently, they also had issues with a woman running the show—especially one who had previously worked part-time while she raised her kids.


“We Have to Talk”

Here’s how Castle met the challenge of the branch office partners’ resistance.

“It was clear that they were concerned about her—both because of how she might handle the contingency cases and because she was a woman who’d been a part-timer and was now up for election,” says Edward Flitton, a former Holland & Hart managing partner and now of counsel for the firm. “She knew that they had the capability to be very adversarial if she got elected. Well, as soon as she was elected chair, she hopped on a plane and visited that office. She walked right into the lion’s den and said, ‘We have to talk.’ That’s the kind of directness and courage that Anne brought to the job.”

So how did she develop her leadership style—which clearly is the kind that’s tough to teach? Castle learned on the fly, serving in a few different leadership roles, both inside and outside the firm. For example, she chaired the board of directors of Colorado Legal Services and also chaired the board of trustees of the Legal Aid Foundation of Colorado. And importantly, firm-side, before taking the reins of Holland & Hart, she served a term as chair of the firm’s natural resources department and was a member of the management committee. “That was more like on-the-job training,” she says, “for which there is no substitute. That three-year term gave me familiarity with the internal mechanics of how the firm operates, how the management committee worked and what the dynamics and rules were.”

In addition, her stint as chair of the natural resources department—she’s a well-regarded water rights attorney—gave her direct experience in positioning the right lawyers and practice group managers into the right roles, or human resources “line management,” as she calls it.

“In this capacity I learned to evaluate and work with different skill sets and figure out what a particular manager did well,” she recalls. “My role as a leader was to fill the gaps that needed filling in. I’d think about partner X, who is great on client development stuff but who is not a good writer. So I’d put him in a position where client relations skills are needed and not in the position to write a brief. It was like moving the pieces around on a chess board.”


Recognizing Difference, in Style and Direction

Castle says while it’s important for a leader to be able to identify the strengths and weaknesses of the firm’s partners and associates, and adjust accordingly, it’s also critical to be open-minded about the wide variety of effective management styles.

“There are different approaches to management and leadership and just because an approach is different from yours or it’s not one that’s historically been employed, that doesn’t make it a bad approach,” she says. “It just makes it a different one.” Still, some lawyers fail to recognize that—something Castle feels is a factor that contributes to the dearth of female leaders within law firms.

“One reason women don’t advance to leadership positions as often as they should is this inability by some—men and women alike—to recognize and accept different, valid leadership styles,” she says. “And that’s something that must be attended to.”

Castle points to another roadblock aspiring female leaders run into—ingrained, sometimes subconscious, erroneous assumptions about women in the profession: “Some partners think, ‘Well, this woman is a single mom and therefore she can’t travel or develop business or manage a multi-office department.’ But they are often just wrong. I think that recognizing that you’re making assumptions and examining them periodically is something a good leader should be doing.”

What else should a law firm leader do? Castle offers this advice, although she doesn’t frame it as such: “You have to listen carefully enough to know when you have considered all relevant factors, and then be willing to change your mind if some information is offered that points you in the other direction.”

About the Author

Steven T. Taylor is an award-winning freelance journalist living in Portland, Oregon, who writes on various subjects in the legal media.