Fox Rothschild Managing Partner Mark Morris on mentorship in a fast-paced industry

Mark Morris took over the role of Firmwide managing partner at Fox Rothschild in 2016, but has over 30 years of experience to back him up in that post. Through moving up the ladder, guiding the organization through mergers, and being a point of contact for all inside and outside the organization, Morris has not forgotten about the importance of mentorship.

Ladders spoke with Morris to hear his thoughts on what makes a good mentor, his management style, and how Millennial and Gen Z employees are different from previous generations.

What are you most excited about at Fox Rothschild right now?

“I think we’re really poised to take advantage of the platform that we’ve built over the last decade or so. I’d say the thing I’m most excited about is that it’s time for us to really mature and take advantage of that platform. We have a vast diversity of clients. We have a very extensive group of significant fee producers within the firm.

We’ve embarked on a real plan to promote collaboration across all of the practice groups and geographic areas by introducing industry initiatives and so forth.

We’ve laid the foundation and groundwork over the last decade or so, through lots of acquisitions and mergers and lateral hires. I think now we’re really poised to take advantage of that. Last year was the best year that the firm had probably in a decade. So we saw some early signs of that, but I think we’re really poised to continue that growth and trajectory for the long haul.”

What do you think is the role of the managing partner?

“In our firm, we have a somewhat unique governance structure among firms our size…and a little bit of a unique approach, which for the most part I think is very beneficial, although there are some pitfalls in it.

We have a geographic approach to governance. In other words, the office managing partner of each office has a seat on the executive committee and then we have six at large members as well. So we have a committee that has like over 30 people on it, and it meets twice a month. So there’s a lot of inclusion from an office by office perspective.

But I think my role is really to be the glue that has the institutional background knowledge and understanding of all those offices and what they have to offer, what their capabilities are, who’s there, and so forth. And really manage all of that proactively to set a cultural tone that I want to see that crosses all of those geographic areas. I view that really as my role.

It’s really proactive management across the board. I think that it’s up to me to implement new policies, and programs, and procedures, and really direct where we’re all going to head together. Everyone’s got plenty of representation through the fact that we have this governance structure, but I think it’s really up to me to be the one that sets the cultural tone and strategic direction of the firm.

That’s what I’ve tried to do. I’ve tried to implement new policies and programs that meet those objectives. Most of them are geared towards making the firm more efficient and responsive to clients. Diversity and inclusion is a big factor. I started a succession planning program here, a formal one, which is designed to retain clients as lawyers decide to retire and so forth.

So it’s that kind of stuff…it’s really policy and direction I think, and then getting out to all of the offices really to get to know everybody. I spend a fair amount of time on the road. I probably travel at least once a month, sometimes twice to offices where you have to get on an airplane to get to them. The ones that are located within an hour or two drive, I try to get to even every month, or at least once a quarter. So I do a fair amount of travel.

I think that’s really my role, is to set a direction and tone and then really try to promote it, visibly around the firm.”

What’s your advice for setting that direction and vision at Fox Rothschild?

“I think you have to be organized to the max…that’s number one. I plan things out literally three months in advance, as to where I’m going to go. I think you have to be focused on execution. I think that what often happens is, particularly even with CEOs, they have an idea or concept and they want to promote that concept. But what sometimes gets left behind is the actual execution.

So I keep a running tab on whatever we set out to do. Whatever we set out to do always has a schedule, and it has benchmarks for when we’re supposed to meet them, whether it’s rolling out new processes to open files, or new collection procedures, or the succession plan that I referenced, or basically anything that we want to promote.

My directive to all the chiefs is, when we say we’re going to do something, then we have to do it. We have to have an organized approach to how we’re going to do it, and it’s got to be systematic. That’s what you have to do, you have to organize to actually execute.”

Can you describe your management style at Fox Rothschild? Does it change all the dealing with employees from different generations?

“First and foremost, obviously you have to be honest and transparent. You have to be direct. Sometimes that’s difficult because you’re dealing with people and it’s not always easy to be a direct, particularly when you have personal relationships with them. I’ve been here for 37 years, so I have plenty of those. But I think you have to be direct.

You have to be responsive. I don’t let a phone call or an email go unattended for 24 hours. I make sure I respond to everything in some fashion, even if it’s just a response to say I can’t respond right now. But you have to be responsive because that’s how you earn people’s trust and confidence. They need to know that you’re considering whatever it is they would like you to address and that you’re on it.

So that’s really my style, is to be hands-on, honest, direct and responsive. In terms of the millennials, so I have three kids of my own, who are Gen Z. I have some experience with the mentality and the mindset.

I think a lot of people in my generation, and I think this is what people do generationally, they frown upon an outlook or an approach that the next generation has because it’s not the way they did things. I try not to do that. I try to understand why they’re different and how they’re different. I do think they’re a lot more inwardly focused and have less of a long-term horizon than the generations that proceeded them, certainly my generation.

I think they have much more of an emphasis on pursuits and activities outside of the workplace, and they want to accommodate that. You have to be aware of that when you deal with them. I don’t think that I really have a different style when it comes to them. I’m honest, direct, responsive, all those things, but I think that the way you deliver your message to them, or the message you actually deliver to them has to be couched a little differently…because you have to take into account that they think differently.

I’m going to the…this year it’s called the meeting…but it’s really an associate retreat, where we have all the associates around the country once a year come together, just like we do for the partners. So I was just actually putting together my little address to them…you have to think about who the audience is when you put that together. So I don’t think that my approach changes, but I do think that how you phrase something, how you word something, what you say…does have to take into account that they look at things differently.”

What’s been the most surprising aspect of being a leader at Fox Rothschild?

“The most surprising thing is how much access everybody has to you…or maybe it’s just this law firm because this is how we’ve always done things. I think that if I were a CEO of a company that had 2,500 employees and 900 plus professionals, let’s say, I’m not sure that every one of those folks, particularly the professionals, would feel at ease or comfortable just reaching right out to me.

I think corporations are structured a little differently, and it’s a good thing. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing, but it was a little surprising that I’ve basically got a lot of constituents who have pretty much free and direct access and don’t hesitate to use that access for whatever issue they may have.

Now, I don’t always handle every issue myself directly, but a lot of times I am the first point of contact and that was a little surprising that that’s how it worked out. Again, it’s not a bad thing, but it’s a little surprising. I guess in my mind I didn’t realize it that that’s exactly how it was going to be, and that is how it is.”

In your opinion, what makes a good mentor?

“Mentorship is very important to me. I have had mentors throughout my life, and they made an enormous difference and filled voids that needed to be filled, in terms of my own professional growth and maturity. It’s the one thing I do think it’s gotten a little lost in the modern law firm world because there’s such an emphasis on efficiency and speed and responsiveness to clients and technology plays a role in that and so forth.

I think the kind of real personal relationships that are at the foundation of any mentoring relationship have gotten more difficult to foster. I try to make that a point of emphasis, particularly when I talk to the partners who really are the mentors, in most cases for the associates…that it’s really important to try to form significant relationships with the lawyers who you work with, particularly the younger ones, and earn their confidence and trust. And basically get to the point where they can use your experiences and treat you as a role model as they advance in their careers.

I think a good mentor has to just invest time and energy in forming those kinds of relationships. Again, there’s a lot of things that tug at you as a lawyer. Clients certainly are first and foremost and they are demanding. The pace of everything has quickened so much over the last few years that I think the mentoring part of it to some degree, is more challenging now than it was.

So I think a good mentor invests time, energy, gets to know the person he or she is dealing with on a personal level. That’s the foundation for how you can pass along your professional advice and wisdom…at the core you have that kind of personal relationship and people are going to accept your approach and listen to you.”

How would you describe the culture at the firm?  What role does it play?

“I think that it’s what really defines a law firm, or at least a large law firm. All the Am Law 100 firms try to emphasize what they’re really good at, what their expertise is, what their coverage is geographically in the terms of practice area and so forth. But I do think there are differences in culture and approach. What I always say to people, most partners, and associates, is that you spend quite a bit of your life at work, at an office, in a law firm, and you ought to be happy here. That’s the number one thing, right? Is your own personal happiness. I think culture plays a large role in that.

Here we’ve got a pretty deep history…we’ve been around over 115 years. I think that the institution and history, even though the firm is very different now than it was when I joined. I was the 72nd lawyer and that’s 37 years ago.

We’ve obviously grown quite a bit, but I think that the culture has sort of maintained itself. We’re not a small or mid-sized firm, but we do have an openness, transparency about us, a culture of inclusion. As I said, we have that executive committee that’s quite broad-based and covers every geographic area.

We have a rotational policy for leadership. The executive committee has to rotate out of the department and practice group positions every few years. I think that promotes more inclusion, more participation, and that’s really what the culture is about.

Obviously there are some fundamentals that I think probably apply to any law firm, or any situation….respect, fair treatment and so forth. But beyond that, we do have a very broad tent, so to speak, that really is at the foundation of who we are. I think that it’s up to the leadership to really define that culture and guide it.”

Is it your role to set and maintain the company culture at Fox Rothschild?

“Yeah, it is. I think history somewhat defines it because we’ve been around a long time and had this process. When we have laterals or when we do mergers, we do a great deal of diligence, not only on their practices but on who they are. There’s a lot of folks, so they interview everybody, make sure they feel comfortable with the person who’s going to come here.

I think in terms of defining the culture beyond just the personal aspect of it, I think that you have to, as a leader, stick to what you say you’re going to do. You have to apply consequences if firm protocol or productivity is not what you say it’s supposed to be, is not actually adhered to. I think that all of that is put upon the leader. I mean you have to certainly outline what everybody’s responsibilities are, and what the expectations are and then stick to what you say you’re going to do about it.”

What advice would you give to someone interviewing at Fox Rothschild?

“One time I was the chair of a hiring committee way back when. And I used to tell the people who I interviewed that…going back to what I said about spending a lot of time at work or in a professional environment, you ought to really try to get a feel for the people and the culture of a place. That’s the first thing that I would recommend.

I also think that going into any kind of an interview situation or professional position that you’re trying to get…you first should try to establish your own vision of what you want and what you’re willing to do to get there and see if it sits at the place you are interviewing.

I think that’s one thing that again, this Gen Z generation sometimes misses. I don’t think they have their own horizon or plan. I think they wing it a little bit. They’re exploring, they don’t know what they want to do. They don’t have a longterm horizon. And I’m not suggesting you have to plan your whole life when you’re 25. But I do think that having some idea, even if it’s short term…five years at a time, three years at a time…something you want to accomplish yourself, and what you’re willing to actually do to get there. How hard do I really want to work? Do I want to put the kind of time in that this job demands, or am I not ready for that yet?

Whatever it is, you ought to try to get it straight in your head first, before you enter any kind of an interviewing situation, whether it’s at Fox Rothschild or anywhere else. I try to tell my own kids…two of them are seniors in college now. And it’s remarkable…I don’t think they think that way. They’re like ‘well, this is a job and it sounds interesting’ and that’s about it. It’s not like there’s any real definition around what it is I’m trying to get out of this, and where I want to go.”

Is there anything though that you would want people to know about yourself or about Fox Rothschild?

“I guess the only thing I’d like people to know about the firm is that we really do have a national practice here. We’re really a middle market leader among law firms. We were one of the first middle market firms to really grow in this fashion across the country, and expand to the size that we are today. We’re out there and we’re going to be aggressive about continuing to grow and service the clients.”