Alan Bryan: Senior Associate General Counsel – Legal Operations and Outside Counsel Management, Wal-Mart Stores, Inc.
#BakersDozen is a series of interviews with leading professionals in the fields of law, consulting, finance, tech, and more.
Tell us a bit about yourself and how you came to be in (or a customer of) the legal business?
I spent most of high school saying I wanted to be a doctor. I entered college as an “undeclared” major on the “pre-med” track. Somewhere in my freshman year, it hit me that I did not have an affinity for working in hospitals. As short-sided as that may have been, I now feel it was my subconscious telling me to jump on the path to law school. Though I have second guessed that decision a few times, I have rarely been uncomfortable in the roles I have held with my legal degree and believe it will be a benefit to me in where I want to go in my career.
What do you do for a living right now?
I am Senior Associate General Counsel for Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. where my responsibilities include leading the Office of Outside Counsel Management and Legal Operations. Succinctly stated, we oversee certain internal operations and processes, as well as manage the company’s relationship with all of its law firms throughout the United States.
What has been your greatest triumph and your greatest success in the legal services field and what did you learn from each?
I have been very fortunate in my career thus far, but my greatest triumph might be overcoming my greatest adversity. At a critical time in my career, I lost faith in those who I believed in the most. It made me question the virtue of the profession I chose. In time, I came to realize that the actions of a few do not define the many, and they certainly do not define me. Today, I use that experience to advance issues of ethics in the profession, inclusiveness, law firm organization, and professionalism, among others. What I thought at the time was the greatest of all my disappointments turned out to be the greatest revitalization of my strengths.
Who – or what – inspires you – and why?
From a very young age, I have been inspired and motivated by the chance to lead. This motivation dictated how I studied, my work ethic, and how I treated others. The chance to lead can include leading people and teams, but it also means how we interact with people every single day. As to the “who” that inspires me these days, it would have to be my two children. I am inspired by the chance to show them how to do “it” better than me, and “it” means everything: How to be a kid, a teenager, an adult; How to listen, learn, and grow; How to live life to the fullest; How to succeed and how to accept failure; How to be kind to others; How to be themselves; and, much, much more.
What advice would you give to the younger generation contemplating law as a career?
Be multi-faceted. Today’s legal careers can involve many different ways of working across numerous subject matter areas. Everyone entering the field should be prepared to adapt. My sense is that less and less you will see someone enter a place and retire there 40 years later having done the same thing the whole time.
Be technologically savvy. I do not mean just be better at technology than someone like me (that’s not hard). I do mean that technology has been rapidly changing the way we can and will practice law, and a firm grasp of all those ways technology is pushing the profession to evolve will help you navigate the change and master it.
Be polite, kind, and ethical, and you will also be honorable. My hardest times in this profession have not been those working nights that turn into working mornings or even when I have lost at something. The more frustrating and distasteful of times have been those when I see fellow lawyers become aggressive, stretch the truth, or flat out lie. I do not know why. Some become so competitive or fearful of losing, that they will do almost anything to win. My feeling is that logic, reason, facts, applicable law, and persuasive argument triumph over hyperbole, combativeness, and chicanery any day.
Be prepared. This is not just the Boy Scout motto; it is a phrase to live by as a lawyer. Being prepared means always walking into that deposition, deal closing, hearing, negotiation, or trial having readied yourself to the best of your ability and the facts at hand. Be prepared for the tough times. You will be challenged in many ways. You will work harder than most. You will often face really difficult decisions. You will be the bearer and recipient of bad news. Be prepared to remain steely in those difficult situations. Be prepared for failure. Yes, you will succeed, but you will fail, too. Hope to fail early and often, as there is no greater teaching-tool for later in your career than your early failures. Be prepared to accept them, embrace them, and then learn from them.
How ready for change do you think the legal industry is?
The industry is ready; in fact, I think it is in the process of change, but I still sense there are individuals and organizations that are not ready. Technology, generational shift, demographic shift, information reception and processing, alternative legal services, pressure on clients to cut costs, and more are changing the profession right now. There are a number of internal and external factors chipping away at the legal industry. For those that adapt, the reward will be, at worst, continuing to survive. For the most nimble, it will mean the ability to thrive in an ultra-competitive environment for a shrinking amount of global legal spend. I say “shrinking” because of clients bringing spend in-house and for all the alternative ways to seek and engage legal services.
Today’s legal careers can involve many different ways of working across numerous subject matter areas. Everyone entering the field should be prepared to adapt.
Is more – or different – leadership required? In what ways?
I am not sure we need more leadership or even different leaders, so long as more leaders start thinking differently. Leaders of law firms, legal departments, and other organizations should consider what “different” looks like. Today, it may mean steering the firm’s business model to be supported by value-based billing rather than hourly. It might mean directing capital expenditures away from stalwart expenses into early adoption technology. This “different” leadership could even mean changing the way you manage people.
Embarking on such endeavors outside the status quo are often difficult when you are trying to bring a group of lawyers along. We are taught as lawyers to be risk- averse, so we often hold tight to conventional wisdom for safety’s sake. That reminds me of the title of a book I saw recently, “What Got You Here Will Not Get You There.” Quite simply, it is about not resting on your laurels. More directly, just because you or the firm has a great name in a given legal subject matter, that alone will not keep the calls from the clients coming. You must seize the opportunity to get ahead of the law, to find new and different ways to deliver your legal services, and you must become a true partner, not just advisor, to your client.
Be ahead of the game. The point is not to find change for change’s sake but to be readily adaptable to the changes occurring in your environment, which is in this case the legal profession. An innovative spirit and the courage to take on calculated risk is what I see missing. Leaders who survive this evolution in the profession are those that can identify problems early, have the confidence to attack them, and convince others to step out on that limb with them. There will be trial and error; but ultimately, those lawyer-leaders that successfully mesh our natural tendency toward logic and reason with creativity and risk will be the survivors of Law 2.0.
How deep do you think will be the inroads of technology in the industry?
If I knew the answer to this question, I would be in my garage trying to create that next best technology for the legal profession. Garages are where all the tech geniuses start, right? At technology’s most extended reach, we will not soon (or maybe ever) see a time where technology can completely replace humans. I do not see technology replicating our logic and reason, our emotion and story- telling capability, or our critical ability and need to connect with others. So, we need not yet fear an army of robot lawyers in the future, though it would make good Sci-Fi.
I do think technology has and will continue to alter the way we practice law. When I started out, it was common to write a brief after pouring over mounds of Federal Register volumes or state reporters; though there was an electronic alternative, books were still the norm. Now, that script has been flipped. In hindsight, you can see where technology has been slowly changing us for years, and newer inroads are already being made. For instance, virtual and online law firms, client marketing and development through social media, practicing law “digitally” wherever we are, and cloud-based storage/document review, are just a few of the ways technology is evolving the practice right now. These technologies will only be enhanced. Some sort of technology is making some task easier or cheaper to complete all the time and so long as there is efficiency and cost- savings to be had, many of us will be seeking it out.
In ten years, do you see an industry much as it is – or do you see new players, new technology and an altered state?
My assumption is that future lawyers will need many of the same skill sets we have had for years – analytical thinking and problem solving, reading/writing/investigative skills, negotiation, counseling, advocacy and persuasiveness, logic and sound judgment, etc. Nevertheless, tomorrow’s lawyer will necessarily have expanded skills such as those I described before: adaptability to new areas of law or ways of doing things; technological prowess; and, self-innovation, to name just a few. This is because I do see some sort of “altered state” being the case. You already see new technologies chipping away at how law firms conduct business and how legal departments manage risk. You will increasingly see technology taking over some legal tasks and augmenting others to the point they are not recognizable. But let’s face it, technology is not new to the legal field. It just seems that way, I assume, because we are faced with more technological enhancements and different ways of doing things than ever before.
Are consultants and lawyers looking increasingly similar? Should the distinction continue?
I am not sure if they are similar, but there certainly has been an increasing overlap between some of the services law firms provide and certain consultancies. While I believe the overlap will increase on both sides, I do believe there should be some line of demarcation. Pure “consultancies” are not bound by the same professional rules as attorneys. Even when they utilize attorneys in the services provided, the governance of and restrictions on those services are unequal.
What are your thoughts on the increasing availability of data to guide client-side procurement of legal services?
It is here to stay and it will completely reshape the procurement of legal services. Moreover, there is a mountain of data to be harvested; we need only be willing to start climbing. Take this example: For most companies, litigation will tend to fall into broad categories, like employment, class action, commercial, IP, etc. Within those broader categories, certain specific allegations will begin to form, and the company will see, for example, that ~80% of its employment litigation will fall into 3-4 categories. When you start what I call “bucketing the data,” you can be boil down matters much further down. In addition, a company can begin to collect data on jurisdictions, judges, opposing counsel, expert witnesses, prior settlement/verdict values, and really just about any facet of the case.
How does all of this affect procurement of legal services?
The historical data I am talking about can give the company a decent picture about how the case will go. Every case has its own idiosyncrasies that make it different and hard to predict, but an educated guess can be formed with sufficient data. From there, and the lawyer’s intuition and experience, you increase your odds of success or saving legal costs.
Of course, the more direct way that increased data affects client-side procurement is the data collected on the legal service providers themselves. Everything from cost, duration, performance, responsiveness, budget-adherence, diversity metrics, invoicing inaccuracies, and guideline compliance, can be collected, culled, and utilized the next time that service provider is up for a matter.
Lawyers have had a tendency to believe that all decisions regarding how to maneuver in a case or project or deal must be nuanced. Increasingly, however, data-driven decision making – in conjunction with the lawyer’s natural intuition and subjectivity – is becoming the norm. Is data important? You bet.
What’s the one most significant factor that will drive change in your view?
Revenue. Maybe that is stating the obvious, but I think that is (or will continue to be) the most significant factor driving change. The traditional law firm business model is under persistent pressure and will be from here forward. I do not believe firms will ultimately be able to maintain business as usual as the purchasers of legal services have a variety of alternatives to handling legal matters. Clients will demand the alternatives. In fact, the collective use of the “power of the purse” can move firms, not only in terms of how they provide legal services but in the diversity of their ranks. In my humble opinion, to maintain sufficient revenues, law firms will need to adapt in the future in ways they never have before.
Are we seeing the demise of the “profession” and the real emergence of the “business” of law?
I would not call it the “demise” of the profession, but it is yet another example of the profession’s evolution. In fact, emergence of the “business” of law is an important and necessary change. It is not an easy premise for most law firms which are set up as partnerships. Perhaps it is just from my viewpoint, but I sometimes think there is not enough collective, business-thinking among groups of lawyers. We lawyers can be very individualistic and even self-serving. Some of that self-service is by necessity because we sell services often measured in units of time. For us to take away time devoted to “my” book or “my” billables or “my” clients for work of “our” benefit can seem counterintuitive. But, I would argue successful and surviving firms will start thinking more collectively, cross-selling services, setting holistic overhead expense reduction goals, and thinking about training/succession of younger attorneys, to start. While difficult, lawyers need to start thinking together, collaborating, innovating, optimizing, and moving their firms forward…..like a business would.
What do you consider is the greatest challenge facing the industry?
Moving away, as it should, from the billable hour. There are a number of reasons for my belief that the billable hour should play far less of or no role at all in how we value legal services. That word “value” is key there in relation to the billable hour. How do we value attorneys within law firms? Historically, and for the most part today, a person’s “value” is heavily weighted on the number of billable hours he/she achieves. In other words, we value people in units of time.
This is inherently problematic as one moves from smaller law firms to those that operate on a larger scale and with more substantial overhead. Overhead is generally a part of every business and for most attorneys/firms, there is a proportional overhead amount that must be covered from the attorney’s collections. That pressures the attorney to bill more hours, and it can cause an increase in the attorney’s minimum billable hour requirements when a firm imposes them. There is a natural incongruence and it starts to create pressure on the attorney. There is a finite amount of time in any person’s day. That day is going to be filled with a number of non-working hours. Even in those waking/working hours, there will still be a number of non-billable hours. As difficult as it has been to tackle it, my opinion is that the billable hour and how we value legal services (and individuals) is the biggest challenge facing the profession.
What do you see as the greatest opportunity for the sector looking forward?
The greatest opportunity for the legal profession is in diversification. The legal profession is one of the least diverse professions by gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability, and other areas. We have tremendously underutilized the diversity of talent available to this profession. Take for example women lawyers.
Women have been graduating at an almost equal rate to men from law schools for over three decades. Yet, when you look at the number of women across all firms in their 30s, 40s, and 50s, what you see is a declining slope. In other words, women lawyers are leaving law firms or the profession completely. That is because they are underutilized, under-represented among all levels of leadership, and in some instances underpaid.
Without going into the statistics, I think most legal department or law firm leaders would agree that there are fewer women lawyers than there should be given our output from schools for many years. Where you find disagreement is “why” they disappear. Our opportunity as a profession for women, and people of color, who are underrepresented is to repair those portions of our institutions and their internal cultures that prevent success for all. It is too deep a subject to tackle here, but there are a number of things we could be doing differently to help diversify our profession, and thereby fully utilize our available talent.
Do you think law can improve its track record on diversity and inclusion? How?
I am optimistic that the profession will continue to become more diverse and that we will see greater inclusion of women and minorities from law schools to associates to managing partners and from corporate counsel to general counsel to officers and directors. There is much more that must be done to see the numbers increase.
One of those things is to continually hold ourselves on the corporate side and our legal service providers accountable. It was my honor to be part of the American Bar Association’s (ABA) Diversity and Inclusion 360 Commission over 2015 and 2016, and to draft ABA Resolution 113 and the ABA’s Model Diversity Survey. As of today, over 65 companies have agreed to support Resolution 113, in an effort to increase the number of diverse attorneys they utilize for legal services, and each has agreed to measure such utilization through the ABA Model Diversity Survey.
In addition to those efforts, I am proud to be a part of efforts like the NAWL Challenge Club, seeking to connect aspiring women lawyers in law firms to corporate attorneys for mentorship, professional development, and business opportunity. As part of the NAMWOLF In-House Council Advisory Council, I am happy to count “supplier diversity” – the use of minority, women, LGBT, and disability owned – law firms as part of our panel counsel spend. In addition to supporting Street Law, aimed at teaching high school kids about professions in the law, I am proud to sit on the board of DirectWomen, seeking to place more women lawyers on the boards of public companies.
Those are a sample of some of my activities to achieve diversity in the law. You will note the efforts include a grassroots program introducing women lawyers to potential business, the spend-focused programs that go beyond individual diversity within law firms to “supplier diversity,” and those programs that run up and down the pipeline of legal diversity from bottom (pre-secondary education) to top (public company boards). I use all these examples not just out of self- interest. My point is that we have much to do to achieve diversity in the profession and we should not limit ourselves to one idea, one program, or one targeted group. Whether you run an agency, courtroom, legal department, or law firm, diversification of our profession is critically important to access all available talent, to match the diversity of our society and to ensure we remain a profession protective of equal justice for all.
Who do you think are the greatest influencers on the industry these days?
Today’s greatest influencers are not managing partners, general counsel, or even “LegalTech” innovators. Today’s influencers are the oft-maligned Millennials. Yes, you heard it here first! I do not believe there is another group influencing, or more likely that will influence, the way law is practiced as much as this generation of upcoming lawyers. In fact, they are affecting many professions. Some may say that their influence is a good thing while others disagree, but I think it is at least certain that they are having an effect one way or the other.
They are more digital, more family-oriented, more diverse and multicultural. Millennials communicate instantaneously. They want experiences as much as experience. A legal career does not mean starting work at a firm and staying there forty years; it could mean numerous jobs and not necessarily those traditionally reserved for lawyers. Expectations about where and how to work and even being “at” work in the physical sense have changed dramatically.
In fact, there are currently almost as many Millennials in the workforce as Baby Boomers. That imbalance will continue as they are storming into the workforce and marketplace, replacing Boomers every single day. There are multitude of reasons why Millennials are the greatest influencers are the profession and we should not discount them.
If you had to do it all over again, would you? Or what would you do differently?
If everything remained static, meaning I am who I am, my skills remain, and the timeframe is the same, I would do it again. There is, however, a good deal I would do differently. First, I would have changed my route in college. I would have taken more business and technology classes. Whether a young lawyer wants to go into a firm, government, corporations, or even non-profits, a better understanding of business and operations is beneficial. Technology transcends all legal paths. My advice to those aspiring toward a legal career is to sprinkle in a few business and computer classes. I have been learning these things as I go which can be more difficult.
Second, I would have explored more opportunities; that includes within law school and coming out of it. My laser-focus in law school was doing the best I could, getting good clerkships/internships, and then receiving an offer from what I thought would be a good firm. I was too narrow-minded. I set my sights on one goal, and while there is nothing wrong with that, I did not explore all the options available to me. Only through a very negative experience did I see the other paths that were accessible in my career.
Third and finally, I would have taken more risks. The path I describe above is somewhat conservative: work hard, get good grades, get a good job, work hard again, get promoted, work even harder, hopefully get raises, work hard when you don’t want to anymore, and when you cannot take it anymore, retire. What I realized over time is that I have far more to offer. I realized that I am not a one- dimensional lawyer, nor should I accept that my satisfaction must only come with slow progression. Career satisfaction is individually defined, and I realized at some point that taking risks and getting out of my comfort zone were the best ways to grow. Through this risk-taking and growth, I have found more challenge, as well as more career satisfaction.
In addition, I have rediscovered why I became a lawyer in the first place. It was not only so I could try cases before juries or negotiate settlements and deals. I did it for the versatility it offered me to use every ounce of every available talent I was blessed to receive. Originally, branching out and using those talents beyond the typical “lawyer skills” or those I was allowed to utilize in a firm would have taken risk. Today, I have the freedom to utilize all skills I was blessed with, those attained in law school and those inherent.
If a law firm was a startup pitching for investors, would you be an investor?
No, not if you mean law firms structured as they have been and are currently. I think there are better investments. There is too much about the business model and structure that I would need to see change. Most law firms are partnerships; yet many times, these partnerships are not straightforward. There can be a great imbalance of power a