David B. Wilkins, faculty director of the Harvard Law School Center on the Legal Profession, spoke with Pierre Gentin, chief legal officer and partner at McKinsey, about what legal and consulting each bring to the strategy table.
David B. Wilkins: This is an issue on law firm strategy, and we thought there was nobody better in the world to talk to about this than you. I want to get to your McKinsey hat in a second. But you had a number of positions in the legal profession before your current role, including in government, at a law firm, and at a public company in-house legal department. I wonder how you thought about and developed your sense of strategy in those positions, before you got to McKinsey.
Pierre Gentin: There is an interesting predicate in your question, which is that each professional experience is there to teach you something about strategy. That’s an important framing right at the outset. How can my work experiences and the colleagues I encounter along the way help me develop as a professional and as a human being? That’s a powerful mindset to cultivate throughout one’s career.
There will be ups and downs in any strategy exercise, but you must be confident that the effort is important and worthwhile, and that you’re going to drive through and get someplace much better at the end.Pierre Gentin, Chief Legal Officer, McKinsey
I agree that each of my work experiences has taught me something about strategy. What I learned in the U.S. Attorney’s Office is the importance of confidence. An assistant U.S. attorney may well be dealing with major law firms and teams of far better resourced lawyers on the other side. And on the government side, it’s often just you or a small team of prosecutors. And yet, when you are in front of a judge or when you’re writing that brief, you can win the case because you have a better argument, or your advocacy is better, or your framing is better, or your understanding of the cases is better. And it teaches you a lot about confidence and the power of hard work as a younger lawyer. The same is true when you embark on a significant strategic effort: confidence is critical. There will be ups and downs in any strategy exercise, but you must be confident that the effort is important and worthwhile, and that you’re going to drive through and get someplace much better at the end.
I was an in-house financial services lawyer for nearly two decades, and there I learned the importance of guiding principles. Wall Street is an incredible environment, and I loved it, but it’s also a rough and tumble kind of sector and businesspeople can have strong views and big personalities. As an adviser—as a lawyer— knowing who you are and what your guiding principles are is extremely important. And this is true in the strategy sphere as well. Strategy is not about achieving this or that small-gauge objective. Strategy is about taking a step back and asking who you are and what you want to be. As an organization, what makes you truly distinctive and how can that distinctiveness drive your success in the future? That honest assessment of who you are, what you’re all about, what are your strengths and weaknesses, and how can you chart a dynamic future that reflects your distinctive capabilities and your best angels—your guiding principles—that’s how I think about strategy.
At law firms, we see the importance of culture and its relationship to strategy. Those law firms that have genuinely strong and collaborative cultures can not only be financially successful but also define excellence for and lead the broader legal profession.
Wilkins: Pierre, that’s so thoughtful. But let’s now roll the tape forward. After being in government, in-house, and at a law firm, you come to McKinsey, which, only half-jokingly, invented thinking about strategy consulting on a very serious scale. I wonder, how did that environment change the way, if at all, you thought about strategy?
Gentin: I definitely think there’s a relationship between legal training—what we’d call “learning to think like a lawyer”—and the kind of training that our consultants get at McKinsey. As you’d expect, it’s a focus on facts, on rigorous analysis, and on developing clear and cogent recommendations. In that sense, McKinsey’s approach to strategy was familiar to me given my legal training. But, I would say what McKinsey adds is a more holistic and operational concept of strategy—a thoughtfulness around the specific steps a company needs to go through, how the various stakeholders need to be engaged each step of the way, and how their views are successfully assimilated in the process. One strength of McKinsey as a firm is the combination of intellectual rigor and an internal culture that is open and collaborative.
Wilkins: You’re the first lawyer, and the first nonconsultant to sit at the highest levels of McKinsey. What do you think law firms miss about strategic thinking?
A strategy study can be very helpful in marrying the professional strengths of consulting—that dispassionate organizational focus on what is germane and the process of how you go from A to B—and the professional strengths of lawyers who are excited about how to represent more clients in a more effective way.
Gentin: Strong lawyers and successful law firms are good at representing clients. That’s what excites and inspires them. Lawyers are often not energized by running a law firm or thinking about the operating model of the law firm, its culture and talent strategy, long-term client service or cost-management strategies, and so on. Those are not the reasons lawyers went to law school. But they are the types of things that consultants do extremely well. A strategy study can be very helpful in marrying the professional strengths of consulting—that dispassionate organizational focus on what is germane and the process of how you go from A to B—and the professional strengths of lawyers who are excited about how to represent more clients in a more effective way. That combo of strengths can help generate an actionable strategy plan for the future of a law firm.
Wilkins: Law firms do have one guiding goal that helps them focus, and that is that they have to turn a profit. They have an increasingly competitive environment. You’re in a very interesting role in which the legal department doesn’t technically turn a profit. It’s a support function for the organization as a whole. And many general counsels I speak to struggle with how they should think about strategy for their own legal department. They get that there’s a strategy for the organization, but what does it mean to have a strategy for the legal department?
Gentin: Strategy, as applied to support functions, is often largely or exclusively driven through the lens of cost. But efficiency is one factor among many in creating a world-class professional function. My head of legal operations and strategy is a core member of my leadership team. She and I focus constantly on amplifying the three professional objectives I’ve defined for my department: client service, protecting our firm, and thought partnership with our internal clients. I want each McKinsey Legal colleague to bring those elements of professional excellence to life with their own charisma and style.
We also focus at McKinsey Legal on something we call “professionalism and passion,” which is all of the ways we can unlock the energy, dynamism, and innovation of our McKinsey Legal colleagues. Our McKinsey Legal Lab is an incubator of amazing ideas, with verticals including our blog In the Balance, which goes out to 5 million people on mckinsey.com; our McKinsey Legal Speakers’ Forum; our alumni organization; our music, athletics, and yoga activities; our impact and inclusion efforts, mentorships, volunteering; our associations with universities. All of these are ways of tapping into and unlocking the passion of our great Legal professionals. And that’s what we need. We need both professionalism and passion. Yes, any professional function needs to be run with attention to efficiency and acceleration. That’s absolutely true. But I believe companies leave enormous value on the table, not just with their legal function but with other professional functions as well, because they treat these functions—and the professionals within them—as one monolithic group that needs to be managed principally for cost. The reality is that some of the most talented, innovative, dynamic, and inspirational characters in the organization may be sitting in those functions, including in Legal.
Dynamic, passionate leadership is absolutely key to defining, developing, and executing a successful strategy.
Wilkins: This last answer really highlights one thing that Bob Couture, who’s writing the lead for this issue, argues. He’s been interviewing senior law firm leaders about their strategies. And one of his conclusions is that the content of strategy changes around the positioning of the firm, the dynamics of the marketplace, their histories, and a whole host of other specific factors. But that one thing that seems to be in common is having a very engaged and passionate leader who’s committed to a particular strategy, and committed to communicating that strategy throughout the organization. And he has examples of that in each of the law firm leaders that he’s talked to. And I wonder both how you think about that and how you’ve tried to accomplish that. How have you tried to link your leadership with your strategic vision?
Gentin: Dynamic, passionate leadership is absolutely key to defining, developing, and executing a successful strategy. Personalities and styles differ widely among leaders, but if you want to inspire and engage a large group of people in buying in to and executing a strategy, having a leader who people believe in and respect is extremely important. Other components are important too. A leader who genuinely likes people makes a difference, in my view. I really, really like people. I’m fascinated by people. I live my life where every person that I talk to, I have at some level a sense that they’re going to say something to me that could change my life, and it doesn’t matter who they are! I am fascinated and charmed by people. I love seeing people grow and develop and blossom as professionals. And that’s a privilege that a job like this affords.
Not being rigid in your intellectual orientation is also important. We’re sometimes self-limiting in the inputs that we use to solve and navigate the problems we face. Law, finance, business principles are all super valuable and important and core. But religious philosophy, poetry, the blues, and other fields can be more inspirational, and practically helpful in solving business problems, than we sometimes realize. I often say there are arrows of inspiration flying over us all the time. Do we lift up our hands and bring those arrows into our lives? If we don’t, that’s on us. And one of the ways we can do that is being constantly open to ideas and inspiration from our colleagues.
Wilkins: I teach in a law school where people aspire to be future leaders. I wonder, just as you think about that last piece, what advice would you give them when they’re relatively young? How can they acquire some of the knowledge, skill, experience, dispositions that go into making strategic-minded leaders down the road?
Gentin: When you’re starting out, success can sometimes take the form of acquiring wealth or prestige or titles over time. But time and experience teach you that what is truly enduring will not be costly material things or feeding your own ego but rather more essential things in life. Faith and curiosity. Openness to joy. Family and close friends. Music. The books and cultural influences that are most meaningful to you. Those may be simple things, but I think it was Mozart who said, “The simplest pieces are the most difficult to play.” And you don’t want to wait till you retire to start saying, “What actually do I care about in this world other than the fact that I have an impressive résumé that nobody now thinks is relevant?” Pull those arrows of inspiration into your life when you’re young and let them sustain and nourish you over the years. That’s a strategy I strongly endorse!
Pierre Gentin is the chief legal officer and a senior partner at McKinsey & Co.
David B. Wilkins is the faculty director of the Harvard Law School Center on the Legal Profession.