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Lawyer Limelight: C. Allen Parker

Photo by Laura Barisonzi.

Barack Obama, no doubt, is aware that his job was held by James Monroe in 1819. And we are of a certainty that John Roberts could tell you that John Marshall was chief justice in 1819. But not many people have jobs with what you’d have to call lineage.

As just the 15th presiding partner of Cravath, Swaine & Moore, we’d expect that C. Allen Parker could rattle off the august names of his predecessors since the firm began in 1819 with some measure of pleased alacrity, though we didn’t ask. He has as reminders the artwork and photographs hanging from the dark wood walls of the Cravath sanctum at One Worldwide Plaza, New York. There, looming, are Richard and Samuel Blatchford, William and Clarence Seward, names and visages forever associated with the important events in politics and commerce of the 1800s; and then, in tenures that encompassed the first five decades of the 20th century, there are the images of Paul Cravath, Robert Swaine and Hoyt Moore, whose names outlive them.

Presiding partners since have been equally accomplished and successful at burnishing the firm’s legacy while reinventing and renewing it, to keep up with the times. The 15th presiding partner took the helm of Cravath in 2012. Responding to the news, a senior executive of JPMorgan Chase told The New York Times, simply: “Blue chips don’t get any more blue than Allen Parker.”

Lawdragon: It is impossible to read about Cravath, Swaine & Moore without getting a sense that the firm’s success is inextricably linked to a culture, a history and the “Cravath System” that has been perhaps emulated elsewhere but never duplicated. Can you tell our readers what the firm of today owes to its founders and partners from the 19th century?

AP: The early partners established the principles that have been the foundation of the firm for nearly 200 years: excellence, integrity and an unwavering focus on client service. Building on these principles, Paul Cravath, whose time as a partner began at the end of the 19th century, continued the firm’s dedication to those principles and developed the institutional framework that gave rise to the firm we know today — a firm that strives both to provide the very best legal advice and to work beside our clients to enable them to achieve their business goals.

LD: What did you know of Cravath when you joined the firm? Was its reputation as the pinnacle of American law practice attractive to you?

AP: In the early 1980s, I was of course attracted, as were a great many other law students, by Cravath’s reputation as one of the country’s preeminent law firms and an acknowledged leader in complex transactional and litigation matters. But I ultimately chose to practice at the firm because of its dedication to providing outstanding training and because of the people I met during the interview process and my experience as a summer associate. I was convinced that the Cravath system of associate training — in which each associate is trained as a generalist by going through a series of different practice experiences within his or her chosen department — was the best way for me to reach my full potential as a lawyer. As for the people, I found the lawyers at all levels of Cravath to be not only bright and creative, but also more engaging and enthusiastic than the lawyers I encountered at most other firms.

LD: We’d like to know a little about your dealmaking experience.  Do you remember the first transaction you handled as an associate?  Did you have a particular mentor who taught you how to be a dealmaker and trusted advisor?

AP: I remember my first transaction very well — it was representing a fledgling cellular telephone company in its purchase of cell-site and switching equipment. Although this was a straightforward transaction, it was a great learning experience for a young lawyer in his first few months of practice, and it gave me the chance to work with two talented professionals who went on to become my mentors.  Bob Rosenman, the partner on the transaction, taught me the importance of being exhaustively prepared and treating everyone involved in the transaction with respect.  Rob Kindler, who was the senior associate on the transaction and went on to become a Cravath partner and, later, the vice chairman of Morgan Stanley, taught me the importance of taking personal responsibility for all aspects of the transaction and never losing sight of those issues in the transaction that are truly important. Even nearly 30 years later, I find that these lessons are still the foundation of everything I do as a legal advisor.

LD: You’re the 15th presiding partner at Cravath. What does that mean for you, personally and professionally? What do you hope to say you accomplished when you leave this post?

AP: I have always been a person for whom the firm itself was paramount. While I am honored to serve as Cravath’s presiding partner, my focus is on my responsibility to do what is best for the firm and its nearly 1,400 employees. As you would expect, I have a long list of tasks I would like to complete during my tenure — but all these tasks are mere components of my larger goal to leave the firm a stronger and more enduring institution than it was when my tenure began.

LD: Cravath is known for its extensive commitment to pro bono work, with an extraordinary list of clients and successes. How does the firm choose what cases — and how many of them — to take on?

AP: While the firm has many long-standing pro bono clients, such as Covenant House and Madison Square Boys and Girls Club, that provide our associates with the opportunity to work on matters that are both fulfilling and excellent training, we also take on several new pro bono clients and matters every year. Each new client or matter must go through an informal screening process where the primary focus is on whether there is a partner who will “sponsor” the client or matter and supervise the work that follows. Once we take on a pro bono matter, we give it the same level of attention and dedication we would give to a regular client matter. One of the things of which we are most proud is our ability to broaden our pro bono work so that our lawyers from all practice areas have a way to participate enthusiastically. One example is the interdisciplinary team we formed with doctors and social workers at two local children’s hospitals, Montefiore and New York-Presbyterian, to help address the legal needs of the children at those hospitals, as well as their families. To date we have handled more than 100 matters that have directly furthered the well-being — and, in some cases, even helped to save the lives — of these children.

LD: The firm is relatively small, at least in relationship to its reputation. Few are chosen; of those who are, only a tiny percentage make partner.  From a superficial standpoint, that would seem to lend itself toward the rise of a cutthroat atmosphere; yet surveys show high job satisfaction and former associates and partners speak warmly of their experiences. How is that all part of the same picture?

AP: Although it is very difficult to become a partner at Cravath, there is no doubt that the firm has always been pervaded at all levels by an atmosphere of collegiality, respect and mutual support. There are many possible explanations for that history, but I believe the key has been that every generation at Cravath believes that it is fortunate enough to have joined a fellowship of exceptional lawyers and, accordingly, wants to do all it can to preserve that tradition of fellowship. It’s also the case that our firm is organized into small practice groups or teams, and I believe most Cravath attorneys recall this system as a unique combination of the intimacy and apprenticeship experiences of a small firm with the extraordinary resources and global reach of a large firm.

LD: There’s quite a bit of discussion today about how many law firms will survive an upcoming shakeout. Let’s assume Cravath will be among 25 remaining Biglaw firms. What attributes do you think will account for that?

AP: I believe that Cravath’s success to date has been — and its future success will be — built primarily on the firm attributes that I mentioned earlier as having been handed down by the early partners: excellence, integrity and an unwavering dedication to client service.  But these attributes are made even more powerful and enduring because they are maintained within an institution that has an incredibly strong sense of community. I have no doubt that Cravath will remain one of the country’s preeminent firms so long as our attorneys are focused on always providing outstanding service to our clients and always acting as a team.

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