It is no small achievement that Ben Adams, chairman and CEO of Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz, PC since 2003, has run a top law firm with more than 1,500 employees spread across 22 offices nationwide. It wasn’t that large when he took over, but he’s presided over mergers and the creation of new offices almost every year since.
The firm, which James F. Baker started in Huntsville, Tennessee, 131 years ago, has expanded to 10 states in the southeastern U.S. and Washington, D.C. It’s earned the appellation “prestigious”: Baker’s grandson was Howard H. Baker Jr., a three-term U.S. senator from Tennessee, chief of staff to President Reagan, and ambassador to Japan. Lewis Donelson, who died last year at age 100, was a powerhouse in legal and political circles and a lauded public servant.
Adams has made it his business to nurture the firm’s growth and making sure its traditional values are being met. Adams is based in Memphis but travels up to “three out of four weeks, two to three days at a time.” He often finds himself in Nashville, one of the firm’s central locations, and Baltimore, where Baker Donelson merged with another group two years ago. But Adams always returns to the firm’s Memphis offices in the First Tennessee Building.
Visitors enter on the 20th floor, the only section available to the public, where they can marvel at the spectacular view of the city and the Mississippi River. To the right after entering is the firm’s main boardroom, named in honor of Adams’ predecessor, Charlie Tuggle. Across the rest of the floor are additional boardrooms, each named after a founding member and graced by their respective portraits. The technology is there for a large, contemporary operation with many of the boardrooms equipped with audio and video teleconference technology. Adams says, “There’s no point in having 22 offices if you aren’t going to collaborate.”
In a corner of the 20th floor are research assistants. The area used to be a large library, but a recent transition to digital has resulted in a much smaller footprint. There is still a hefty amount of large, daunting legal volumes, but Adams calls the literature on display “peanuts” compared to the grandeur of the former library.
Beyond that, offices for permanent or visiting employees take up the seven floors that Baker Donelson occupies. Adams’ corner office has its own view of the river, and adorning the walls are awards and magazine covers that trace his professional career. “It’s how I got here,” says Adams. “People might make fun of us for it, but I rarely have anyone in here. It’s just for my own enjoyment.” The display he points to the most is a collection of Fortune magazine covers that celebrate Baker Donelson as a top workplace.
Adams’ ethos for managing a large number of employees is for the person in charge to be in service of the team. “For us to succeed, private practice in a large law firm is very much now more of a team sport, from the mailroom to the senior partner and all points in between,” says Adams. “If there’s a breakdown in service, it’s not good for the client. To that end, we work hard at hiring not only talented people, but really nice people that are committed to serving our clients and our communities, and frankly each other.”
To sustain morale, communication is key. To keep the flow of information intact, Adams has implemented several ideas to keep his employees in the loop. The first is “Ask Ben,” a series of videos in which Adams explains various facets of the company and answers specific questions submitted by employees. The firm sets up a video presentation and the director of communications, Liz McKee, asks the questions and records the sessions for distribution throughout the firm. “Ask Ben” has weekly updates, and in that vein, Adams will travel to other offices and hold Town Hall-style sessions to answer other questions.
A second program is the “Daily Docket.” Many of the lawyers at Baker Donelson are grouped into teams. Teams meet daily for a few minutes and go over current events at the firm and bat around ideas, concerns, or criticisms. “It’s not only a good communication outlet, but it’s a great informal network of feedback because the team leaders can pass back anything,” says Adams. “A lot of good ideas come out of reactions to the discussions at Daily Docket.”
Come May, there will be changes when Timothy Lupinacci, from the Birmingham, Alabama, office takes over as president and CEO. Adams is making sure the transition goes smoothly. “You have to step back and decide what’s best for the law firm,” he says. “I think it’s time for the firm to have new energy, new ideas. It’s been the privilege of a lifetime to have the opportunity to serve and lead my colleagues, but I’m looking forward to a new chapter, even though I don’t quite know what that will be like.”