A long-time advocate for diversity in the legal field, and something of a savant in fostering client relationships, Karen Kaplowitz is well positioned to advise a wide range of law firms and partners on crucial business-development tactics. She practiced as a trial lawyer for 25 years before founding The New Ellis Group in 1997, where she specializes in lateral integration and regularly coaches partners on leveraging their existing networks to help “make it rain.”
Lawdragon: Can you describe for our readers the types of services you provide within the legal industry and to whom?
Karen Kaplowitz: I am a business development strategist and coach specializing in lateral integration for law firm partners. Law firms and individual partners retain me to help partners build their practices. I have worked with hundreds of law firm partners throughout the US for over 20 years. My forte is helping partners apply the business development strategies they know about to their specific circumstances.
LD: How did you first become interested in providing this type of professional service?
KK: First I was a rainmaker myself while a trial lawyer in Los Angeles. I became Marketing Partner of Alschuler, Grossman & Pines, a very successful litigation boutique, which was at risk because one partner, Marshall Grossman, brought in most of the work. The firm had to increase and diversify the rainmakers in the firm and I became a leader of that effort.
LD: What are some aspects about this work that you find professionally satisfying? What do you like about working with lawyers?
KK: I love helping partners become more secure and more highly compensated. My role is to help lawyers understand their strengths, create strong game plans to build client relationships, integrate their business development efforts more easily into their work and lives and to make transitions to other firms more successful. Lawyers are great collaborators because they are inherently problem solvers.
LD: Out of all the varied work you’ve done in your career, what would you say is the most interesting matter you’ve worked on?
KK: One of my own rainmaking successes led to the successful defense of Apple in a "bet the company" patent suit over one of the first software patents. Apple hired my law firm to take over the lead on the matter two months before trial even though we did not have any experience with patent law or the technology. I brought in Apple as a client and then shared the credit for the work with the spectacular team of lawyers who turned around the case and brought it to a successful conclusion.
LD: Are there any trends in the legal industry that you are seeing from your vantage point in terms of lateral hires?
KK: There is a war for talent among law firms, which has heightened the importance of two areas in which I specialize: lateral integration and diversity. To remain competitive, law firms are investing more in retaining laterals and diverse lawyers. I work on strengthening lateral integration processes and providing coaching support to laterals, high potential partners, and diverse lawyers.
LD: Can you describe a recent matter that you’ve handled?
KK: Because of my extensive work with laterals for a decade, viGlobal, the leading HR software company for law firms, retained me to help design viIntegrate, its new lateral integration software. In addition to helping to design the software, I have collaborated with viGlobal to support its law firm clients as they implement viIntegrate to improve their lateral integration processes.
The challenge to law firms is to use technology to improve their lateral integration process on a timetable and in a manner that will be accepted in the firm. Some firms start out with strong procedures and a culture of accountability for the success of laterals. Other firms use the adoption of viIntegrate to improve their process and improve accountability. I help firms to find the right balance for their specific circumstances.
LD: Can you talk a bit about what makes lateral integration so essential?
KK: Lateral integration and integration after mergers is of huge importance. Lateral partner attrition may be as high as 50 percent within five years of partners being hired. The financial losses to both law firms and partners are major; failed moves and mergers also derail careers.
I am excited that the importance of lateral integration is becoming more widely understood. I have been working in this area for over a decade. Firms are now making more partners through lateral hiring than from internal promotions. It is an economic imperative for firms to take retention of lateral partners more seriously. I appreciate the opportunity to help firms reduce attrition.
LD: Can you tell us more about your time as a lawyer, and how that led to your current work?
KK: I was the third woman lawyer hired at O'Melveny & Myers in 1971, after graduating from the University of Chicago Law School. I left after three years to start one of the first women-owned law firms in Los Angeles with two other women lawyers. To survive, we had to bring in clients. After six years, I joined a 25-lawyer litigation boutique where I used my own rainmaking skills to help other lawyers in the firm. I became the firm's Marketing Partner to reduce the risk that we were overly dependent on the firm's senior partner. In 1997, I started a consulting firm, The New Ellis Group. I remained of counsel to the Alschuler law firm until 2007 when the firm merged with Bingham McCutchen. I have since worked with hundreds of partners in major firms around the country. Having worked at a very large firm, O'Melveny & Myers, a small firm of six lawyers, and a mid-size firm that grew from 25 to over 50 lawyers, I understand the challenges my clients face. I am also an expert at breaking down goals into concrete and manageable steps. I have written a widely read newsletter on business development strategy for lawyers since 2007. I am still a member of the California Bar.
LD: Did any experience from your undergraduate work push you towards this type of career?
KK: I have been a pioneer, thought leader, and activist throughout my professional life. Because I went to law school during the Vietnam War, I was in the first large wave of women law students at the University of Chicago Law School. With other women students, we sued the law school when it failed to ban law firms that discriminated against women students from recruiting on campus. Kaplowitz vs. University of Chicago is a landmark Title VII suit. I was the third woman lawyer at O'Melveny & Myers; the founder of one of the first women-owned law firms in Los Angeles; and the first woman partner at a successful litigation boutique in Los Angeles. Being a pioneer builds one's muscle for innovation and problem solving!
LD: Did you have a mentor who really helped shape the course of your professional life?
KK: Many people have been mentors to me. As a law student, I worked for a brilliant public interest lawyer, Sid Wolinsky, who inspired me. Don Wessling was a University of Chicago Law School alum who recruited me to O'Melveny & Myers because he wanted to increase the number of women at the firm. When I started a women-owned law firm, my two partners were extraordinary teachers. I was 27 and single; Blanche Bersch was 39, married, with three children. She taught me that I could not be a cliffhanger if I wanted to have any work/life balance. My partner Marshall Grossman taught me the importance of excellence, consistent rainmaking and collaboration. My husband and business partner, Alan Cohen, enabled me to build a successful consulting business.
LD: How has your profession changed since the early part of your career?
KK: When I started The New Ellis Group in 1997, law firms did not have Chief Marketing Officers or people in business development roles. Firms now have substantial internal professional support for the work I do in business development, lateral integration and diversity. Some firms even have internal coaches.
LD: How would you describe your style or philosophy as a strategist and coach?
KK: Everyone understands the importance of business development, lateral integration and diversity, the areas in which I work. Lawyers often don't understand how to apply what they know to their own circumstances. I specialize in helping people integrate their goals in these areas into their very demanding lives. Because I believe so strongly in the importance of individuals' applying their goals, I generally discourage law firms from hiring me to do training without a coaching program to help people apply their training to their own specific practices.
My business is all about innovation. How can firms retain the best talent using internal and external resources? How can laterals make successful transitions? How can firms use technology to track the progress of laterals, high potential partners, and diverse talent?
LD: There are many high-quality consulting firms out there. What’s unique about The New Ellis Group?
KK: I have the unique experience of having helped hundreds of law firm partners integrate their business development goals with their work and lives in a sustainable way. I am an expert at helping partners understand and use their strengths, their past successes and their contacts to create vibrant practices.
LD: What do you do for fun when you’re outside the office?
KK: Traveling, walking along the Delaware River, spending time with friends and family.
LD: Are you involved in any community or public interest activities?
KK: I am a leader in several organizations: Legal Momentum, the Women's Legal Defense and Education Fund, for which I created the Aiming High Awards which have recognized over one hundred of the most successful women business leaders in the US and several Men of Distinction. I am also a leader in Vision 2020, a celebration of the centennial of women voting.
Because of my advocacy on behalf of women in the profession, I have also been an adviser to the Working Mother Best Law Firms for Women Initiative since 2016, where I help identify the best practices for firms to retain and advance women lawyers and to encourage firms to continue to invest in diversity, equality, and inclusion.
I am proud to be a part of the innovation in the legal community to promote greater leadership and success for women lawyers. Having started out as one of the pioneering women law students in the 60s, it is very fulfilling to bring along the next generation of women lawyers.