Ep: 22 Gina Passarella | Editor-in-Chief of The American Lawyer | Building Relationship, Trust & the Media

Gina Passarella on Building Relationship, Trust & the Media

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I interviewed Gina Passarella | Editor-in-Chief of The American Lawyer on Wed May 16th, 2018.
Gina and I first discussed her career as a reporter in the business of law and the many changes to the media business. We talked how she’s a data geek and how data has been an important part of reporting on the legal industry in particular with law firms. We discussed her values in her role at The American Lawyer and also rules of engagement with reporters. We talked about what the recently released AmLaw100 numbers reveled and what surprised her being in her role of Editor-in-Chief. Also asked her about her summer reading list, family plans, etc.

Here are some highlights of my interview with Gina Passarella:

“This business, like so much of life, is built on relationships and trust.”

“It surprises me how many firms when they talk about their strategy are saying the same exact thing.”

“It’s setting the ground rules in advance. If you’re on the phone and you want it to be off the record, state that in the beginning. Both parties need to agree to it from the start. Try to be as forthcoming as you can.”

“We spend time meeting with law firms leaders, meeting with alternative legal service providers, general counsel, anybody in the legal industry, have off-the-record conversations, which really get a sense of what’s happening in the market.”

“I think we’re going to see segmentation by peer group.“Do we need ten international business firms, ten global firms, ten Wall Street elite firms?” Does that market have room for that many of a certain firm type? We’re going to see shake out over the next few years, and there are winners and losers.”

“I think the Big Four accounting firms could be a slightly bigger threat than some firms are giving them credit for.”

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If you haven’t already, please leave a review on iTunes.

Links referred to in this episode:

Gina Passarella’s LinkedIn Bio

Gina Passarella’s Twitter Handle

The American Lawyer

Legal Speak Podcast by Law.com

Law Firm Disrupted briefing by Roy Strom of Law.com

Skilled in the Art | IP briefing by Scott Graham of Law.com

The 2018 AmLaw100

The Big Four Public Accounting Firms | Wikipedia

Chadbourne Settles Sex Bias Case by Law.com

Dr Seuss by Wikipedia

National Geographic

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Audio Transcription 

To Download the PDF Transcript, click here. (Look in the top right corner and click on the three dots to download.)

Hi listeners, this is Chris Batz, your host of the Law Firm Leadership podcast. In today’s episode I had a great conversation with The American Lawyer’s editor-in-chief. We discussed numerous topics, including media trends, her values as a reporter, rules of engagement with reporters, what the new Am Law 100 numbers reveal and of course, predictions for the legal industry, along with much more.

Just a reminder, the PDF transcript of this audio is available for download. Go to LionGroupRecruiting.com/podcast.

As many of you know, we interview corporate defense, law firm leaders, partners, general counsels, and legal consultants. You’re listening to episode twenty-two of The Law Firm Leadership podcast.

Chris: Welcome to The Law Firm Leadership podcast. I’m your host, Chris Batz, with the Lion Group. Today I have the pleasure of speaking with Gina Passarella, the editor-in-chief of The American Lawyer.

She has covered the business of law for her entire career first as a reporter and a special project’s editor with The Legal Intelligencer in Pennsylvania, then as senior editor for Business of Law in ALM’s global newsroom. She took over as editor and chief of The American Lawyer in January 2017. Gina received her journalism degree from The American University during 2005.

Welcome Gina to The Law Firm Leadership podcast. It’s great to have you on the show.

Gina: Thank you so much Chris. It’s a pleasure to be here.

The Media and the Business of Law

Chris: Gina, knowing that you graduated in 2005 and have been in journalism since, what has changed in the media business kind of overall in the industry and then I want to go to the legal side?

Gina: In some respects a lot has changed, in other respects not much at all. It’s always going to be the case that really interesting news that has insights and strong human intelligence is what’s going to resonate with readers. I would say the change has really been about how we deliver the content both on our websites and in our newsletters and on social media.

Chris: Do you find with the emergence of the internet that you sleep less because people get news sooner?

Gina: I sleep okay. I won’t complain too much about the hours. I think for most journalists that makes it exciting. We’re competitive, not with each other, but with getting the news out there. We want to own our beats, so having the opportunity to break news as soon as we can is somewhat exciting.

Chris: How has the business of law media coverage changed say over the 10 – 12 years you’ve been in it?

Gina: Nobody kind of graduates from journalism school and thinks I want to be a business of law reporter. I don’t even know I knew what that was when I was in school. But they had a fabulous editor who took a chance on me for a first job and kind of a sink or swim opportunity to cover the large law firms in Pennsylvania and realized that I loved it.

I think I came into this at a fascinating time, where I had a couple of years of covering firms in the heyday of just go, go, go rate increases and growth across the board, then 2007 – ’08 – ’09 hit and it was just a very difficult time for firms certainly, but a fascinating time to be covering the industry and watching it evolve, frankly struggle, but also some really creative endeavors that came out of that time. Ever since the industry has just been in a constant state of evolution. It’s been a fascinating time to cover it.

Chris: Yeah. You’re right, so starting in 2005 the rates are exploding, the reporting of even stats and data about the firms are exploding, the intrigue with public knowledge more or less about the economics of firms. Have you seen a change in consumption or interest because of this new information hitting the market on the business of law?

Gina: There’s always going to be a knock about whether or not law firms should be providing the level of financial detail that they provide about their businesses, but our stats show that those pieces certainly do get read. I think they’ve become a big element of the business of law in terms of lateral recruiting and how firms are strategizing.

The numbers do provide a level of transparency in an industry that is a major player in a lot of the communities that we cover. These are massive employers and the health of these organizations are hugely important to a lot of people. They also are involved in every industry in the world and have some of the most complex issues facing the country and beyond within their walls. To know how they’re doing, and how they’re operating and growing, and where they’re looking to invest their capital and their resources is I think of great interest.

I think lately the focus has been on what’s the evolution of this business model, what’s the next step, can the old way survive, how are firms innovating. That has certainly become a big part of our reporting.

Data-driven Media Coverage of the Legal Industry

Chris: In talking earlier and we talk about data in the ALM Intelligence arm, you had mentioned that you’ve kind of become a data geek. How does that play out in your role at The American Lawyer?

Gina: It’s such a great resource to have. The American Lawyer on the purely editorial side has been collecting data on law firm’s finances, hiring, diversity, gender issues for 30 years. We have all that data and have had it sitting either in pages of old editions and bound copies on the shelf or in various places on the web that weren’t really easy to access.

What our intelligence team has done, particularly with the creation recently of Legal Compass, is to put all of that data into one place, make it sortable, searchable, comparing firms against their peers, looking at five – ten year trend lines, whatever your heart’s desire in terms of how you cut and slice the data.

The reporters are using that just as much as our readers are using it. It’s become a huge help in doing some quick analysis on financial trends to back up the reporting. I think you can’t replace the importance of human intelligence in talking to people and seeing what’s happening on the ground. Data doesn’t tell the full story, but data certainly does back up a lot of the stories that we’re writing about or frankly debunk theories that we had. For lawyers who are often beholden to facts it can be pretty powerful information to go along with an article.

Gina’s Values as editor-in-chief and What to Expect 

Chris: Let me jump to your role inside of ALM as the editor-in-chief for The American Lawyer. What would you say are your leadership values that you bring to this division for the folks bringing content to you and you distributing that content?

Gina: This business, like so much of life, is built on relationships and trust. Our reporters and editors and myself, we have to gain the trust of the public through accurate, fair reporting, through really having our finger on the pulse and knowing what’s going on and telling them the trends that they need to care about and that maybe they didn’t know about, but also giving them the insight. For me I think first and foremost, it’s really about building that trust within our community.

Not to say that we’re going to be best friends with everyone or that we’re going to write only what they want to hear or read, but that we are looking at things in a fair and smart way and are giving the market really the most important information they need. They’re busy people. We need to bring that to them.

From a leadership point of view, it’s really about becoming a geek about your beat and loving it to the point where you are more knowledgeable than anybody else on this and you’re going to be the go-to resource for our team to bring this content to our readers. I think showing that you have a love for the content and an understanding of the content and respect the audience and the issues that they’re facing and can discuss them in an impactful and intelligent way.

Chris: I have to agree. Let me just pivot to this concept of content and distribution. I want to ask what’s on the table for The American Lawyer?

Gina: We have our daily news alerts that we put out twice a day. Then there’s always going to be the coverage of the daily breaking news. In that mix will be a little bit more enterprise reporting, where we’re not just telling you the pure breaking news, but this is a trend that we’re noticing, kind of a quick hit enterprise piece on this is what’s been happening this week and this is what it means.

Then we have our magazine content, which obviously ultimately ends up online. That is often some longer form pieces that really dive into broader issues.

I and other editors spend a lot of our time meeting with law firms leaders, meeting with alternative legal service providers, general counsel, anybody in the legal industry, have off-the-record conversations, which really get a sense of what’s happening in the market. I view that as the most important part of my job because I bring that information back to our reporters and our editors.

Through that we can have the most relevant stories and frankly serving as business intelligence for our readers by talking to the rest of the market about how they’re handling it, so identifying opportunities, challenges in the market, how firms need to address them.

In terms of some of my initiatives, we don’t have every edition planned out for the rest of the year, though there are several and a lot of them themed, whether it be our pro bono issue or diversity and the like. But what you will see, even if the stories aren’t totally formulated yet are a big focus on like I mentioned. I want you to pick up The American Lawyer and say,“I didn’t know that,” or “That’s the exact issue I’m grappling with. Let me read how other people are dealing with this.” I want it to be forward looking, identifying trends that are just starting to happen or coming down the pike. A lot of that is going to go back to innovation in the law firm, in the legal services delivery model, as well as I really want to see more of the client voice in the publication and how are law firms and clients interacting, what are clients expecting of firms.

Chris: Yeah, it’s exciting and I so appreciate including the client voice. Obviously, I know you do that in Corporate Counsel as a publication. Let’s just talk about content as it relates to technology. Tell me about distribution. What are you guys exploring, knowing that obviously there’s traditional print, you have your website assets, what other methods or things that are on the table that you’re exploring either for The American Lawyer or other publications within ALM?

Gina: You’re going to continue to see the print publications of American Lawyer on your desk each month. We will continue to put out our newsletters, both in the morning and the afternoon and our breaking news alerts when appropriate.

Chris: I think you mentioned you guys started Legal Speak. Is that a podcast I believe?

Gina: Exactly. It’s a weekly podcast that ALM provides. It could be reporters or editors across any of our publications on a variety of topics that are relevant to that week’s or month’s news. That’s done extremely well for us. We’re looking at video too. We’re not quite as far along in that regard as the podcast, but that’s something that we’re definitely exploring.

We’ve also started briefings, which are weekly, typically, newsletters that are very specific to a niche, maybe a practice or a topic, whether it be the Law Firm Disrupted briefing that Roy Strom does or Skilled in the Art and IT briefing that Scott Graham does. They are specific kind of targeted newsletters that an attorney in that practice area or a managing partner, who’s dealing with issues of managing a firm, might look too.

I welcome the opportunity to do community building in the sense of roundtable discussions, bringing in GCs and law firm leaders into a room to talk about issues. Anything that we can do to bring our community together I think is welcome and on the table for us.

Rules of Engagement

Chris: Knowing that you’re a reporter, that you’re trained in journalism, would you educate my audience on the rules for engagement with reporters?

Gina:It’s always good to have a relationship built before that first time that anybody’s getting on a call to talk about a news subject. Off-the-record meetings, we welcome them just to get to know you, learn about what you’re writing about, we learn about what you’re practicing.

Really it’s trying to figure out which reporters are covering which beat or which brand within our chain are focused on what topics. If ever anybody has questions, because that can be a tough matrix to navigate, you can always feel free to reach out to me or anyone of us will direct you the right way.

It’s knowing what the reporters care about and pitching them stories, one that haven’t already run in another publication preferably and being upfront. If you’re going to pitch something, make sure that the principals are available to talk about it that day. That’s something that happens sometimes where they’re all of the sudden not available.

But really it’s just setting the ground rules in advance. If you’re on the phone and you want it to be off the record, state that in the beginning. Both parties need to agree to it from the start. You can go off the record for portions or not. Try to be as forthcoming as you can. Try to put things into perspective beyond just your own experience. How might this fit into a trend? What other organizations might be doing similar things. That’s always helpful.

But really it’s just about gaining a comfort level between the reporter and the source.

“It surprises me…”

Chris: With your role at ALM and specifically you’re editor-in-chief of American Lawyer, what surprised you about being in this role so far?

Gina: I do a lot of meetings with law firm leadership around the country in firms of different sizes. There’s certainly differences among every firm. But it surprises me how many firms when they talk about their strategy are saying the same exact thing and wanting to be the same exact firm.

A lot of it makes sense. A lot of it is very common business goals that anybody should have. But when we think about a market that isn’t necessarily growing in demand, how much room there is for firms of a certain type to go after the same type of work is just it’s very interesting to hear.

But aside from that more recent development, I’d say I think the one thing that maybe has surprised me all along in my entire career and is an unfair prejudgment on my part before I started, but just how open firms and lawyers are about what they’re doing and just they’re genuinely trying to figure things out. We wouldn’t be as good as we are at what we do if our sources didn’t take the time to talk to us about what they’re seeing and help us understand what is a quite complicated industry.

The 2018 AmLaw100 Distilled

Chris: With that kind of same vein of thinking, I know that you just had the unveiling of the Am Law 100 numbers. Would you distill some of what you’ve learned and what you’re reporting on?

Gina: Sure. There’s a little bit of a surprise in the Am Law 100 numbers. There’s so many different headwinds facing the industry that we’ve been all reporting and talking about, whether it be clients taking more work in house, alternative legal services providers taking a bite out of the demand, or the big four and what they’re going to do. All these various things that are making it difficult for firms to gain market share and yet they came out at the end of 2017 with some of the strongest growth in their core financial metrics that they’ve had since the Great Recession.

This is – we’re talking about the Am Law 100, so it’s the 100 largest law firms in the country based on gross revenue. It’s also probably, theoretically, some of the best managed firms. The firms that are managed most like a business that are getting the highest end work. It shouldn’t be a total surprise. I don’t know that that will be consistent across firms lower down the list. In fact, as the Am Law 200 release approaches, I know it won’t be.

There is some really good highlights out of the list this year. I think firms were able to capitalize on the strong economy. They were able to increase rates a bit. They’re, frankly, perhaps better managed and have been addressing some of those headwinds that they’re facing through cutting some of the equity partnership that was over capacity or doing various things to better run their business as a business. It was a really good year. It seems to be continuing into 2018.

Legal Industry Predictions

Chris: What predictions do you have for the legal industry since we’re entering into such a changing economy for firms?

Gina: One thing that I think we’re going to see across the market is segmentation by peer group and how sustainable it is to say, “Do we need ten international business firms, ten global firms, ten Wall Street elite firms?” Does that market have room for that many of a certain firm type? I think we’re going to see some shake out there over the next few years as within those individual tiers there are winners and losers.

But we’ll see.

Chris: What does losers look like?

Gina: It could be closure. It could be a merger. It could just be not as successful. But it could go as far as some of those firms closing up.

Chris: Yeah, so continued shake out. You did bring up alternative kind of competitors to the law firm industry, including the clients themselves, what do you see happening in that direction? You mentioned the big four.

Gina: It’s funny, you talk to law firm leaders, particularly in the US, and they don’t see the big four as a major threat, particularly at the larger firms because they don’t think the big four are doing the type of high-level work that the larger firms want to be doing. I think there’s definitely some truth to that.

There’s also regulatory hurdles for the big four in the US. Those that aren’t super global don’t have to worry about it perhaps as much. But I wouldn’t discount them. I think they could be a slightly bigger threat than some firms are giving them credit for.

Chris: Yup. I’ll just chip this in. I had a conversation with a very large, I think it was a global 100 kind of a Fortune 100 company, general counsel, who is staring down at their outside counsel realizing that they’re moving more and more work to a big four firm for just a consolidation of services that they offer that even law firms don’t offer.

Gina: Interesting. I think law firms need to pay attention to those kinds of things. A lot of the deals that we’re seeing are between alternative legal services providers partnering with GCs to take some of the GC work in house or some of the work that would have gone to a law firm going there. Maybe some of the firms are okay with shedding that level of work, but I question whether or not they might need to change their headcount and structure to accommodate that if they’re going to be okay with it.

Gender Bias Law Suits

Chris: Yeah, I agree. I wanted to bring up a subject that seems to be on the front headline pages, a lot of these gender biased law suits with firms. I know a lot of them are being settled with undisclosed amounts. A named firm right now is being faced with that. Where do you see this heading?

Gina: Frankly, I’ve been somewhat frustrated that all of these suits have settled. In the Chadbourne case, there was a little bit of information about what that settlement entailed.

But there are so many unresolved legal issues down to whether an equity partner can be considered an employee and bring these charges because really law firms are managed by a centralized management and an equity partner is just an employee with partner name only. All of these issues that are surrounding it, it would be great to see them litigated and resolved.

But I think we’re going to continue to see more and more of these cases. There are plaintiff firms that are aggressively pushing them. There are female lawyers who have very valid claims that they’re looking to bring. I think that’s going to happen more and more.

We had an article recently about whether just the broader Me Too movement will make all of these issues come to the floor even more because it’s just a topic of conversation that isn’t quite as taboo as it once was.

Will the US Bar Association yield?

Chris: Let me bring up another subject, which is private ownership of law firms. Do you see the US bar associations caving eventually?

Gina: You know we talk about that a lot. I think there’s inevitably going to have to be a lot of pressure put on that model, but oddly enough I think it’s going to be the law firms themselves that really rally to try to limit that because I think they have an interest in protecting the status quo.

Chris: Right. Exactly. It’s interesting because you have some firms that are very willing to be progressive and do things different. Then we have these models that are permittable in US law to allow them to be non-attorney owners like an Axiom or these alternative business models that are emerging. You wonder how many of those will catch momentum and cause pressure on the decision makers.

Gina: Right. It just seems like such a natural progression, but lobbying can be a powerful thing. I won’t crystal ball gaze on that one.

Chris: Yeah. When I began my career as a legal recruiter I was amazed at an article that The American Lawyer came out with. It was November and I think it was 2010 maybe. The big scenario was what if. What if law firms went public? What if law firms took private capital? It was an amazing article because it literally walked you through the valuation analysis and scenario of the partners cashing out and then becoming owners themselves or just receiving payment and just the dynamics that it would wrap around a law firm going public or a law firm taking private financing.

There’s so much dry powder right now I’m surprised that there’s not more push from private equity or things like that.

Gina: Right. As the litigation funding industry grows, that could have an impact as well. I agree with you.

Chris: Yeah. Any other news trending that is really kind of catching your eye or your ear per se as a journalist?

Gina: I think it really goes back to a fundamental principle of law firms, which is the partnership model. That theme threads through everything we’ve been discussing, which is how much can that traditional partnership model give, how much will it allow firms to experiment with new models or frankly maybe some firms are using it as a shield to avoid having to make these decisions.

I think that model is being tested right now. As firms look at how they’re going to innovate and what clients are demanding of them, I think we’re going to continue to see attempts at change but also some of that innovation really being held back until firms can kind of say, “You know what? We’re not your typical partnership like we used to be.”

Summer Plans

Chris: Transitioning to more personal questions, which I like to ask. Gina, what are you reading these days?

Gina: With a four-and-a-half-year-old at home I’m reading a lot of Dr. Seuss. If you asked me that about four years ago I would have told you I’m into nonfiction biographies. We just read our first chapter book, Charlotte’s Web.

Chris: That’s exciting. With you being a journalist and being trained to that as your profession, do you write personally yourself?

Gina: I toyed around with blogs and the like. I’m not super into creative writing. The most I’ve been writing is in a diary for my daughter. Once a day I put a little line in about what happened that day or what’s happening with her, her development so that I can give that to her a few years from now.

Chris: That’s really sweet. With you and the family, do you guys have plans this summer?

Gina: We are house hunting so that is all consuming. And come September, the family will grow by one, so I’m expecting a baby in September.

Chris: Yes, congratulations.

Gina: Those are our big plans. Thank you. Yeah, I like to do everything transitional all at once.

Chris: Yeah. Are you finding the house hunt fun or grueling with the prices these days?

Gina: A little bit of both. Our hobby, my husband and I, is antiquing. We love all things old, including houses. We’re looking at very historic homes. It is a lot of fun but with that comes historic home issues.

Alternative Career Choice

Chris: Okay, okay. Gina, if you weren’t in journalism, what would you be doing today?

Gina: Such a great question. Maybe it’s not that far afield, but detective work of any kind I just find fascinating. Those are the types of books I often read. They’re the types of shows I often watch. I’d say it’s probably somewhere in that field.

Preferred News Source for a Media Exec

Chris: Here’s a question from a reader going to a reader. What’s your favorite news network or newspaper?

Gina: That’s a really tough question. Perhaps this is the most Millennial thing about me. But Twitter. I have a feed of a number of different publications that I try to look across. I think it’s dangerous business to just read one or two.

Chris: I agree. It’s fascinating you say Twitter too. I’m a huge Twitter fan myself. I’m amazed at the content I can pull. Are you a loyalist to say like The New Yorker or The Atlantic or any of those other kind of more journalistic publications?

Gina: Not particularly. No, I don’t have any fan favorites. If I’m a loyalist at all to other magazines or anything like that it would be something more along the lines of like National Geographic or something.

The Importance of a Support Network

Chris: That’s excellent. Okay. Last question and this is just kind of a different direction, but what is the kindest thing anyone has ever done for you, Gina?

Gina: Oh, goodness. That is a great question and so hard because truly just with this job, with being a mom, with life in general, it takes a village. It’s a constant stream of being very fortunate to have a great support network around me and couldn’t do any of it that I do without the amazing colleagues I work with and the amazing family that I have.

I think it’s several instances, if I look professionally, of people giving me a shot, letting me try to prove myself, and then giving me opportunities to have good experiences in my life. I don’t know. It’s not a great specific answer, but I have to go with that.

Chris: Yeah. Thank you Gina. Gina, it’s been a pleasure. Thank you for your time on the show today.

Gina: Thank you so much. It’s been great talking with you.

Thank you everyone who’s listened to this episode of the Law Firm Leadership podcast.

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