A ‘naturally inclusive’ leader

Head of global law firm respects dissent and promotes diversity

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Thomas was re-elected unopposed to a second term as global
managing partner of 140-year-old Reed Smith. Photo by Mark Rhodes

“Managing lawyers is like herding cats” according to an old saying. If that is true, how do you lead a firm with more than 1,800 lawyers?

That’s the task of Alexander Y. “Sandy” Thomas, an Alexandria native who is the global managing partner of the law firm Reed Smith.

Begun 140 years ago in Pittsburgh serving clients such as U.S. Steel, Reed Smith has 27 offices in the U.S., Europe, the Middle East and Asia. Two of those offices are in Virginia, in Tysons and Richmond. In its most recent fiscal year, the firm generated more than $1 billion in annual revenue and $1.1 million in profits per partner. In

May, the firm was ranked 25th on the Am Law 100, a list of the largest U.S. firms based on revenue. 

Thomas, 51, was re-elected in August to his second four-year term as global managing partner.  He also is chair of the firm’s executive committee.

Thomas is based in the firm’s Tysons office, which has 33 attorneys. He likes to point out the firm has more than 3,300 employees, including lawyers. His management approach involves a strong emphasis on communications, making sure employees understand the firm’s goals and values while being open to feedback.  “I think it’s really important to respect dissent and to respect a diversity of views,” he says. “Out of that come really good ideas. You build the best consensus you can and be as clear as you can be — and then move ahead.”

During his first term as managing partner, Thomas led the firm through several expansions. The moves included the opening of an office in Frankfurt, Germany; the launch of an alliance with a Singapore law practice, Resource Law LLC; the addition of more than 50 lawyers from the multinational firm King & Wood Mallesons to Reed Smith’s London, Frankfurt, Munich and Paris offices; and the opening of a Miami office with the addition of a seven-lawyer international arbitration and litigation practice from boutique firm Astigarraga Davis.

Thomas also sharpened the firm’s focus on five core industry groups — financial services, life sciences/health care, shipping, entertainment and media, and energy and natural resources. 

Thomas is the son of William G. “Bill” Thomas, a prominent Northern Virginia lawyer who also is a longtime political strategist and lobbyist.  The younger Thomas, however, did not grow up expecting to become a lawyer. After he graduated from Episcopal High School in Alexandria and earned a bachelor’s degree from Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., his first job was working in the 1988 U.S. Senate campaign of former Democratic Gov. Chuck Robb. He served on Robb’s Senate staff before attending law school at Washington & Lee University.

“I was always interested in politics and policy,” Thomas says. “Ultimately, that led to an interest in going to law school.” 

He clerked for the late U.S. District Court Judge Robert Merhige Jr., a jurist known nationally for his 1972 ruling on the desegregation of Richmond Public Schools. Thomas also worked for the U.S. Justice Department (completing its honors program in antitrust law) and served in the U.S. Attorney’s office in Northern Virginia.  In 1996, he became a litigation associate at the Northern Virginia law firm Hazel & Thomas, where his father was a name partner. The firm merged with Reed Smith in 1999.

Bill Thomas says he and his son initially did not practice in the same area at Reed Smith. Sandy, however, became leader of Bill’s group, the Global Regulatory Practice. “I remember calling Sandy up and saying, ‘I need your permission’ [for a business expense]. We both laughed about it, and he said, ‘Well, I think I will grant permission in this case.’”

Gregory B. Jordan, Reed Smith’s global managing partner for nearly 13 years, identified Sandy as a future leader of the firm, appointing him to a series of positions of increasingly responsibility. Thomas eventually became head of the litigation department, a position that earned him a spot on the senior management team.
When Jordan left the firm in 2013, Thomas succeeded him as global managing partner. Jordan, who is general counsel and chief administrative officer for PNC Financial Services Group in Pittsburgh, says Thomas has the character traits needed to manage a law firm like Reed Smith.

“He’s naturally inclusive. He likes people. It’s very clear that he’s a person of integrity and has a team-first kind of attitude, which in a law firm is particularly important in a leader,” Jordan says. “He’s got all those traits. I’d like to say I helped him develop them, but I really didn’t. He had them when I first met him and they continued to emerge in higher and higher leadership roles in the firm.”

Reed Smith is one of 30 large law firms that have pledged to follow the Mansfield Rule, which requires that women and minorities make up at least 30 percent of the candidates for leadership and governance positions, equity partner promotions and lateral positions. The rule gets its name from Arabella Mansfield, the first woman admitted to practice law in the U.S.

This year, the Women in Law Empowerment Forum announced Reed Smith was one of only two U.S. firms to meet or exceed criteria to achieve WILEF’s “Gold Standard” for seven years in a row. The firm also has been named to Working Mother magazine’s annual list of the “Best Law Firms for Women” for six consecutive years.

Women make up 40.4 percent of Reed Smith attorneys worldwide.  In the U.S., about 36 percent are women and 15 percent represent minorities. Women hold 27.5 percent of leadership positions in the U.S. while minorities hold 7.8 percent of these positions.

“We are very active with diversity and inclusion programs,” Thomas says. “At the law firm, we show up every day with all different creeds and colors and backgrounds. That’s just the way we are. And that’s the way our clients are.” 

Outside the office, Thomas’ pastimes include running, fishing and hunting ducks, geese and wild turkeys. He and his wife, Brigid, have a daughter and a son, both of whom are in college.

Virginia Business interviewed Thomas in August at his office in Tysons.

Virginia Business: This is your second term as managing partner. Are there things that you learned from your first term that you’re going to apply to your new term?
Thomas: This job is about learning [something] every day.  I think one of the main things I’ve learned [is that] this is a contact sport. It’s a contact sport internally and externally. There’s no substitute for being present to your partners and present to people in the law firm … There’s also no substitute for clarity of message and clarity of mission. You just have to work really hard to achieve it. A third thing — it ties back to the first — time spent with clients is always time well-spent. How you spend your time is a big part of whether you’re effective or not.

VB: You are reshaping the firm’s focus on five industry core groups. [How did you decide on those groups?]
Thomas: Over time, as is the case in any firm, we have added a small number of industries where we feel like we can credibly say we know this industry very well, so well that we say we should be the lawyers of choice in that industry. There are five of those industries. The original two for us were financial services and life sciences. We then added our energy and natural resources practice, shipping and transportation, and then entertainment and media. The common feature of those groups is that they are all global, so our work for those clients in those groups spans all of our geography. The lawyers in those groups do a variety of different things in terms of their legal practice. But the predominant feature in their legal practice is that they focus on clients in whatever industry group they are in. Then we have a complement of practices, which are highly relevant to the clients in those five groups.

VB: Do you have a goal of a certain size that the firm should be?
Thomas: We don’t have a particular number, but I will say this: Our business is increasingly global. In order to be the global firm as fully realized as possible … we will continue to add talent and new geographies that are consistent with the strategies of the firm. 

VB: What do you consider to be the criteria for good merger partners?
Thomas: I think first, second and third on that list is cultural fit. Somewhere after cultural fit is the nature of the practices within the firm, and how consistent those practices are with the strategies of Reed Smith. The next criteria would be where they are … geographically and how significant is that to Reed Smith and what we are trying to accomplish and where we want to take the firm.

VB: Is there a quick summary of what the overall strategy of the law firm is?
Thomas: We want to be the leading global relationship law firm in five industries. We want to have the practices that support our clients and their most sophisticated legal needs in those industries and beyond.

VB: Hazel & Thomas merged with Reed Smith in 1999. Did that change the way your practice was or your father’s practice was after being merged into the company?
Thomas: [When the firms merged in 1999, Hazel & Thomas had 21 lawyers and Reed Smith had 499]. For those of us that were part of Hazel & Thomas, it made a huge impact on our practice. It opened up opportunities we would not likely have seen.  For example, the merger provided the opportunity to do work for clients who had needs in places we weren’t able to [handle]before the combination. I’ve seen that story over and over again since 1999. Not only in my own practice, but up and down the halls here and in Richmond.

VB: Reed Smith’s expansion is fairly recent. It’s been within the last 20 years that much of its expansion has taken place, correct?
Thomas: Correct. [On Aug. 1], we celebrated our 140th anniversary. With the expansion, I would say between 1999 and today, we’ve grown significantly. Some of it by whole firm combination, some of it by more organic growth.

VB: Was there any particular decision made by the firm that it was going to aim at becoming a global firm and that was the beginning of the expansion?
Thomas: Well, everything always comes back to clients. Our expansion was driven largely, not exclusively, by where our clients are doing business ... For example, with our 2003 combination with a great firm out in California called Crosby Heafey, [we believed] there were a substantial number of clients there, and when combined with that firm, [the clients] would use us there. And we were right. And the same is true in London with the Richards Butler combination and the Sachnoff & Weaver combination in Chicago. As I say, it all comes back to clients.

VB: Some clients have been with you since the firm was started. One of the first clients of the firm was U.S. Steel. I think I saw a case where you were working with U.S. Steel.
Thomas: Correct. If you ask anybody in our business what the most satisfying thing about it is, it’s these long-term client relationships that go on for decades and decades and decades. It makes us hugely proud. U.S. Steel is a great example of that. It’s also a great example of a question you asked earlier, how do people’s practices change? Having it become part of Reed Smith in the ‘90s, I had the opportunity to work on antitrust matters with U.S. Steel. It doesn’t get a lot better than that. It really doesn’t. In a couple of cases, we prevailed in matters where U.S. Steel was our client. That’s just hugely satisfying. I don’t know if I would have had any of those opportunities without the combinations [with other firms].

VB: I’ve noticed you’ve been cited for being a good firm for women to work in Working Women’s Magazine. How do you support women’s careers?
Thomas: A bunch of different ways. We have a highly organized women’s initiative WINRS [Women’s Initiative Network of Reed Smith], which is a global organization designed to attract, retain, support and develop our talented female attorneys. That organization is something we care a lot about and put a lot of investment in. It does things like pay really close attention to our pipeline of talent, beginning in the earliest stages of our talent development: in the UK, our trainee program and, in the U.S., our summer associate program … Then there is the mentorship and the sponsorship that characterize a great career trajectory at Reed Smith. So that’s one dimension of it.

The other dimension is our WINRS program connects to similar programs with clients, and that just makes for even stronger client relationships. In several instances, we’ve had really substantial clients that don’t have a corresponding program to WINRS, so we’ve helped them get one set up. We know how to do it. We’re good at it. Ours works very well… We try to be overt about Reed Smith being a fantastic place for a female attorney to build her career. So we do things like become a founding member [of the Mansfield Rule group of 30 law firms, which requires consideration of a diverse pool of candidates for any leadership or governance position.] . … We are very deliberate and very intentional about leadership within the firm reflecting the gender balance of the firm. If you take, for example, our senior management team in the firm, it is six lawyers, and it’s perfectly gender-balanced.

VB: So, it’s [three men and three women].
Thomas: Yes. I think you need to put your money where your mouth is.

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