Christine Kearns started with Shaw, Pittman, Potts & Trowbridge in 1987. Since then she's seen the firm shorten its name to Shaw Pittman and merge with Pillsbury Winthrop to form Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman.
Kearns took over the role of managing partner for Pillsbury's Washington office in 2010, having previously served as chairwoman of the firm's recruiting and compensation committees.
Legal Times sat down with Kearns in her office to discuss the new D.C. office currently under construction, her practice and the legal market five years after the financial crisis.
Legal Times: What were some considerations when deciding to move the Washington office?
Kearns: I led the committee that made the decision to move the office to 1200 17th Street. Like most law firms, we were looking for efficiency. We have a long term lease and we wanted smaller floor plates, greater flexibility and have as much natural light as possible. Because we are the lead tenant we have a lot of say in the details of the building. The space we took is designed for 200 lawyers, which is about 30 more than we have in this office. We took space for more lawyers than we currently have because we think that is the way the D.C. office will be going, but we were able to do that by taking substantially less square footage. That is a statement about how you can be more efficient than when you were designing a floor plate for law firm in the 1980's.
What's keeping you busy these days?
In my employment practice at the moment, I am doing about 60 percent litigation and 40 percent counseling. That includes internal investigations, which I do a lot. A lot of the most sensitive, c-level advice to clients is about tricky employment situations. In terms of litigation, we are representing a defendant in a case where the client is alleged to have done what I would call a liftout. That is where someone takes a group of employees from a competitor and brought them wholesale into their operation and allegedly [stole] trade secrets in doing so. I have a whistleblower case under the Energy Reorganization Act in federal court in Charlotte, which is basically a retaliation claim. I have ongoing discrimination and sexual harassment cases.
Is the legal market improving five years after the financial crisis?
Our clients suffered through a financial crisis and made adjustments and have expectations that the law firms will understand and similarly make adjustments. I think all clients should demand and most of them are demanding that law firms reconsider their approach. Law firms, especially big law firms, had a standard formula: hourly rates with rate increase every year. It became customary to have huge offices. We can't just accept everything anymore. Lawyers have to remember that this is a service industry and it is a privilege to represent the people we are representing. It's not all about making more money than the next law firm. I think law firms and lawyers are learning to understand that. It might be an opportunity to remember that we are a profession. I'm realistic, it is a business. We have to be a lot more flexible and creative than historically we have been if you want to survive as a law firm.
What keeps you busy outside the practice of law?
I have four children, but they are all grown. My youngest went to college two years ago and my others are out of college. When he went to college, I did feel like, "What am I going to do with myself?" I did make the decision at that time that I would start teaching on Sunday morning at my church. That has been wonderful. Those sixth graders keep me on my toes. I have learned a lot about myself and them. I have a new grandson, six months old. Being a grandmother has been a privilege and exciting. Being a grandmother is a different role.
This is part of a series of Q&A sessions Legal Times is conducting with D.C.-based law firm managing partners. Photo by The National Law Journal's Diego M. Radzinschi.