Law Firm Leaders
Patrick J. Whalen has a simple formula for success.
“I think it starts with servant leadership,” he said. “You get a lot of that in leadership literature, and it can mean different things to different people.”
Whatever it means for Whalen, it is certainly working. The St. Louis native and University of Texas School of Law graduate has put together a solid track record as chair and managing partner at Spencer Fane. The firm now counts more than 300 attorneys — an increase of 21 percent since the end of 2018 — with new offices in Houston, Minneapolis and Tampa. Profit jumped by nearly 20 percent in 2019.
And while 2020 brought pandemic-related losses of both revenue and staff for many other firms, Whalen’s business strategy and focus on core values had prepared Spencer Fane to handle adversity and continue to grow, his nominator wrote.
“As a testament to the success and culture he cultivated during his first term as chair, Whalen was unanimously re-elected to continue leading the firm in 2020,” his nominator added.
Whalen credits Spencer Fane’s success to its ability to keep rates reasonable due to less corporate debt on the books.
“It is important from both the client and the talent perspectives,” he said. “From a client’s perspective, we think we drive more value to a project with a less leveraged model. You can have expertise and experience brought in, and we think we can execute on projects at a very efficient price point.”
Spencer Fane also has a lower ratio of associates to partners, which means associates aren’t pitted against one another to climb the career ladder.
“Again, that’s a traditional law firm model that we think is fairly deleterious to the culture,” he said. “Part of our value proposition for talent is that we are about empowerment and an external focus. We don’t engage in competition with each other. There is not a zero-sum mindset.”
The secret can also be seen in the firm’s culture and values, which include humility, commitment to winning, external focus with positive energy, belief in empowerment and dedication to collaboration, he said.
“Spencer Fane’s unique approach — to pursue measured growth that created a sizable but controlled footprint without offices on either coast while aligning with the needs of clients in the markets where they do business — demonstrates innovation and ability to quickly and effectively adapt its legal services as the industry evolves,” Whalen’s nominator wrote.
“This has been especially apparent during the past year as Whalen’s leadership developed the forward-thinking approach that positioned the firm to maintain its position of strength at the onset of the pandemic and in the months since.”
Now in his eighth year as managing partner, Whalen said he’s long believed that leadership is critical, “but only if the leadership is about making the organization better and making sure that folks get to live up to their potential.”
Clarifying the firm’s core values was an important part of the equation, he added.
“They couldn’t just be something you checked the box on,” he said. “They had to be something that drives our behavior on a daily basis.”
Even during the pandemic, the firm has done well by building securely on its previous gains, he said.
“We don’t subscribe to a notion that growing is intrinsically good. It is how you grow and why you grow,” he said. “We think we are growing for the right reasons.”
And in the right way. Unlike some firms that look for success in centralization, Spencer Fane has a different approach.
“We want to be decentralized,” he said. “We want to value everybody’s autonomy. We want to empower folks. We’re supporting each person in the organization, not directing or managing them.”