Laura Maechtlen – Partner at Seyfarth Shaw LLP
1. Tell us a bit about yourself and how you came to be in (or a customer of) the legal business?
My first career was in music — violin performance. During my junior year of college, I began researching next steps in my educational journey and realized that auditions for a masters or PhD in music would be ridiculously competitive, and that my career path in music would remain that way. I was pursuing a double degree in Political Science and had great fun at various internships through the Political Science Department — most of which involved the law (they included work with the ACLU and the CO State Legislature). I realized that I was inspired by the work done by lawyers at those organizations — I saw lawyers changing people’s lives. I decided to go to law school because it was less competitive than music school and/or pursuing a career in performance. Lawyers always laugh when I say that; after all, in many lawyers minds, who could be more competitive than law students? However, anyone who has pursued classical music as a professional career would agree.
2. What do you do for a living right now?
I am a Partner at Seyfarth Shaw LLP. At the Firm, I am privileged to serve my colleagues as Seyfarth’s Chair of the Labor and Employment Department and Co-Chair of the Diversity & Inclusion Action Team.
3. What has been your greatest triumph and your greatest success in the legal services field and what did you learn from each?
I struggled with this one. Securing a job at Seyfarth is likely my greatest success – it has allowed a platform to accomplish many other things – legal wins, leadership roles, and the ability to impact our profession.
4. Do you think the legal industry is headed in the right direction, the wrong direction – or which direction?
Neither. I would argue that we fail to move in the right direction collectively, and we fail to move fast enough. There are many people in the industry that realize we need to change and work differently — we must diversify the profession; we need to solve for the failings of our primary business model for law firms — the billable hour model; we must learn how to recognize that we can embrace a “profession” while also running a business; and, we need to preserve the rule of law, while ensuring access to justice for all.
However, despite a lot of “talk” which seems to indicate that large swaths of professionals in our industry “get” the issues, we fail to make meaningful progress in areas that demand change.
5. Who – or what – inspires you – and why?
I take inspiration for many people, and find new people who provide inspiration every day. I am always inspired by Laurie Anderson (the performance artist), who started her career as a classical musician, but reimagined music and performance differently than anyone else in the world. I am inspired by Kyle Nel, the Executive Director of Lowe’s Innovation Labs. I saw him present last year at an innovation conference, and he has also approached his industry with entirely fresh eyes — who knew that Lowe’s is at the Space Station? I am also inspired by people who have a new vision for the legal industry – Seyfarth’s Chair Emeritus, Steve Poor; the Founder and CEO of Diversity Labs, Caren Ulrich Stacy; the Director of the Legal Design Lab at Stanford, Margaret Hagen; the lawyer bringing mindfulness to the legal profession, Jeena Cho; and, my colleague who helped reinvent the way Seyfarth delivers legal services, Lisa Damon (among many others).
6. What advice would you give to the younger generation contemplating law as a career?
Do not listen to the naysayers. Law can provide a great career. You can change peoples’ lives with a JD. Do not get boxed into believing that your career path is narrow. There are lawyers outside of BigLaw who do amazing work every day, and there are many non-practicing attorneys with access to careers they never thought possible.
7. How ready for change do you think the legal industry is?
Not ready. There are many reasons. One is that many law firm lawyers will be resistant to change unless they are forced to change, and (most) clients are not forcing that change with much purpose or speed. Law firms in particular pose very difficult problems when you discuss the idea of institutional change, or even cultural change. As Ken Grady explained in an excellent post recently, “[l]aw firms are federations of individuals. Each year loosely align their practices for the purpose of generating income. Each lawyer in the firm exists independent of the other lawyers and of the firm. They share back office functions for convenience, but beyond that convenience, each has his or her own business.” This is true, and a reason that many law firms struggle with change management.
8. Is more – or different – leadership required? In what ways?
It is difficult to say that different leadership is required because it begs the question: which leadership might one change to accomplish new results for our industry? We might call on leaders of BigLaw firms, or bar association leadership to — for example — address our failings in diversity and inclusion. But, one person driving change in one organization will not move the needle for our profession. To make inroads in changing our industry in the ways it must move, we must have different collective leadership on key issues: diversity and inclusion, access to justice, and respect for the rule of law are issues that erode the profession’s credibility and collective success.
9. How deep do you think will be the inroads of technology in the industry?
Deep. However, our collective reaction to the power of technology is the issue. We also have a major issue with how we share information about technology. We need to stop the hype, and minimize the use of basic technology to stand up fancy marketing campaigns. We need to think broadly about how technology might impact the industry, coupled with other ways we might practice differently — how will we use talent differently, and how can we approach the business model of a law firm differently? Technology is not an issue in a silo – there are other ways we are seeing change, including with talent and process. With respect to technology, we see “chicken little” arguments now: “AI will replace the lawyers!” or “Automation is coming for my job!” These arguments typically end in either dismissal of technology and how it might impact the industry. While automation may aid in minimizing repetitive tasks, mundane projects and low-level inquiries in the short term and beyond, and AI and other technologies may ultimately displace some workers from certain tasks they hold today (not likely entire jobs), I’ve come to at least two conclusions: (1) some tasks lawyers hold today will be replaced by new tasks which have not yet even been imagined; and (2) lawyers knowledge work will continue to offer human beings a lot of opportunity. Lawyers are perhaps too dismissive sometimes about how technology could impact the profession, but I am hopeful that I am wrong. Technology is just one way in which we are being challenged to operate differently.
10. In ten years, do you see an industry much as it is – or do you see new players, new technology and an altered state?
We will continue to see developments in technology, with new talent, and new players. The “future of work” for law is going to be different. How far we can go with these changes is the question. In ten years, I think we will see some players in the market clinging to an “old school” model of doing business. Some of those players will be just fine, because they may practice in a niche area, or be one of the “richest of the rich” that have pulled away from other law firms in revenues. But, we will also see a vast array of different ways in which legal service providers offer solutions for buyers of those services. Those new models for service will continue to challenge the established players and the profession in general. I also hope that we see some transformed organizations, for those law firms willing to truly think and act differently — there is so much opportunity, if you can convince your federations of partners to embrace change.
11. Are consultants and lawyers looking increasingly similar? Should the distinction continue?
There will likely always be a distinction, assuming lawyers are licensed professionals, and the professional rules dictate who can “own” a law firm. That said, lawyers need to minimize the hierarchy and siloed nature of how they do business. At Seyfarth Shaw, we utilize a variety of legal professionals who are client facing, and they are crucial to some of our most important client relationships. They are not “non-lawyers.” They are colleagues who can be as important as our licensed attorneys in delivering top quality client service. We cannot overlook the skillsets of professionals in the legal industry who specialize in technology, project management, design, and other skills.
12. What are your thoughts on the increasing availability of data to guide client-side procurement of legal services?
It seems long overdue. There is a lot of power in data, even small data.
13. Lawyers have typically regulated to keep non-lawyer investors out but that’s a two-edged sword these days. What are your thoughts?
The debate over whether the profession should agree to non-lawyer ownership of legal service providers is one fraught with much history and opinion. I cannot speak with expertise, but would argue that, if the profession continues to deny that true competition exists to the current legal service providers allowed to be licensed by U.S. Bar associates, the result will not be a stronger and respected profession. Instead, it could become a profession where lawyers become less relevant, trusted, and valuable.
14. What’s the one most significant factor that will drive change in your view?
Purchasers of legal services — they can demand change. Secondarily, the pipeline of junior talent can drive change. Law students and junior attorneys are already clear about their expectations for law firms — many are disinterested, dissatisfied and disengaged. They don’t want to work in the same way associates worked 10 or 20 years ago. To compete for top talent, organizations will need to answer to their concerns.
15. Are we seeing the demise of the “profession” and the real emergence of the “business” of law?
This dichotomy — one the pits the “profession” against the “business” is very dangerous. No one believes that corporations are not professional when they are run well, to fulfill the corporate objectives set forth by a corporate Board. It is time that the business lawyers in the legal industry see themselves as responsible not only to the values and high performance standards of a “profession” but also to a business and the constituents of that business. We must deliver high standards in both substantive legal work, as well as function as business leaders in the delivery of legal services.
16. What do you consider is the greatest challenge facing the industry?
Resistance to change.
17. What do you see as the greatest opportunity for the sector looking forward?
If we could learn to collaborate across organizations in better ways, the profession could be forever changed.
18. Do you think law can improve its track record on diversity and inclusion? How?
It must. As someone who has worked in the D&I space in the legal industry for a long time, I admit the answer eludes me. Lately, my opinion is that competition seems to drive law firms, including my own. When one firm receives an accolade or attention for a program, many others clamor to institute the same. And, the initiatives that firms pursue continue to get more sophisticated. Perhaps peer pressure will help. Certainly, the business case and core value arguments have already been tried, and we haven’t made significant progress as a profession. 19. Will the current regulatory framework around law help or hinder it in the future. The current framework is hindering the law now, and will continue to hinder progress. 20. Who do you think are the greatest influencers on the industry these days? Judges. They keep the rule of law. After that, clients – corporate clients.
21. If you had to do it all over again, would you? Or what would you do differently?
Yes. I would not do it differently – while imperfect, this is my journey and I own it. 22. If a law firm was a startup pitching for investors, would you be an investor? Depends on the law firm.
1. If you weren’t doing this, what would you be doing?
Goat farmer in Mendocino, CA, or food writer.
2. What would you like to be known for?
Impacting others in a positive way.
3. What would surprise everyone if they knew (they may now).
I am adopted – 27% Native American, and Hispanic.
4. What’s your favorite hobby or activity outside of law?
I play the violin, but now the fiddle.
5. What’s your favorite sports team?
Boston Red Sox
6. What’s your favorite city?
7. What’s your favorite food?
Hatch Green Chile
8. What’s your nickname – and why?
“LoMac” because my colleagues at Seyfarth wanted to shorten my long, difficult-to-spell last name. “Lo” is more gangster than “Laura” Mac is.
Laura J. Maechtlen is the National Chair of the Labor and Employment Department at Seyfarth Shaw LLP, and Co-Chair of the Firm’s Diversity and Inclusion Action Team. Her practice is focused on employment litigation and includes the defense of class, collective and multi-plaintiff actions.
Laura also has extensive experience litigating against the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) in systemic actions, both at the early charge stage and in large-scale EEOC pattern-and-practice litigation. In addition to her litigation practice, Laura also provides day-to-day counseling and advice to clients about the various laws affecting the employment relationship. She also regularly reviews employer policies for compliance under state and federal law.
Laura has worked extensively in the legal profession on issues related to diversity and inclusion. She is the current Co-Chair of the California Minority Counsel Program, and is a Past President of the National LGBT Bar Association, Division Chair for the Hispanic National Bar Association (“HNBA”) LGBT Division, and Latina Commissioner for the HNBA. She was also an inaugural Fellow of the Leadership Council For Legal Diversity (“LCLD”) in 2011. Laura speaks and publishes regularly on a variety of employment law and litigation topics, and issues regarding diversity and inclusion in the legal profession, and has been quoted on those topics by the San Francisco Chronicle, Reuters, The Recorder, Vogue, The Daily Journal, the Insurance Journal, CIO.com, Employment Law 360, and others. She has also served as a contributing editor to multiple editions of The Fair Labor Standards Act (ABA) and The Developing Labor Law (BNA).