As the recently named chair of Sidley Austin LLP’s executive committee, Michael J. Schmidtberger has some big shoes to fill. Schmidtberger, a global co-leader of the firm’s investment funds, advisers and derivatives group, succeeds legendary Supreme Court litigator Carter Phillips, who oversaw a period of growth as well as achievement in diversity. In addition to being awarded WILEF’s Gold Standard Certification for the sixth time last year, Sidley also posted impressive financial figures in 2017, including a 5.6 percent increase in revenues to over $2 billion and a 6 percent jump in profits per equity partner to $2.26 million, according to The American Lawyer. We recently spoke with Schmidtberger about his new gig. (The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.)
You’ve been in your position as chair since January. What do you see as the biggest priority?
I am stepping into the role after we have been very well led by Carter Phillips, who of course is an icon in the global legal market. And there is something daunting about that.
But we’re in a very good position. For my part, I think the challenges are around the change and disruption that technology and information are bringing.
My job is to work with our management and executive committees to guide our firm, first, to best help our clients cope with the rapid pace of change and disruption. And then secondly, to make sure that we keep up with the changes that are coming and will come to our profession.
And that is sort of what I’m looking out at. I’m certainly not looking backward; I am looking forward, and I think we will have incredible opportunities, but also challenges that will come from technology and innovation in the way information is stored, harnessed and used.
What drew you to management?
More than being drawn into management, I was invited. My personal story is one where I owe an incredible debt to the firm, so when asked to take on any role, I’ve always said yes. So, shortly after the merger in 2001 with Brown & Wood, I was asked to join the executive committee and, of course, said yes.
I was also part of an effort to build a new practice group. We were successful at it, and when I was asked to join the management committee in 2008—said yes. But even in my time on the executive committee, I was given jobs to do on various committees and my answer has always been yes because of the way I felt supported by the firm, and the opportunity to be of service to my partners is both humbling, first and foremost, and gratifying.
Can you remember why you wanted to become a lawyer?
Oh, sure, that was easy. I was in pre-med through my first two years as an undergraduate and then I worked in a hospital and discovered that I really couldn’t stand the sight of blood.
The second element was that I really enjoyed problem-solving and writing. And I thought, well, if you’re not going to go to medical school, and you like writing and problem-solving, law school seems to be a good second choice.
Who are women who have influenced your career as a lawyer?
I don’t think that my career has been influenced by women so much as women have influenced me in the way I was raised and in terms of my personal life.
My mother lost her father at a very young age and was raised by her mother and an aunt—they were Irish immigrants. Her belief system was around hard work and meritocracy. I was raised to believe that if you work hard and you’re good at what you do, you will be successful in your endeavors. I have a number of brothers and sisters, and that is the way we were all raised. We could do anything if we put our mind to it, and where we came from, who our parents were and all the rest of it didn’t matter.
The second [influence] is having two daughters—they’re 18 and 16. I’ve looked at the world through their eyes. And third is my wife, who is the daughter of immigrants as well, and who had to make her way as the first English speaker in her family.
Do you foresee any changes in the way Sidley attracts and retains female lawyers?
I don’t see our firm changing the way we approach the recruitment and retention of women, per se. In terms of what we do, we’ve innovated for a long time. We were an inaugural participant in the OnRamp Fellowship program. We established the Sidley Prelaw Scholars Program and had 350 people come through that program.
We have a merit-based approach that has resonated for a long time. We have a couple of offices where the majority of lawyers and office leadership are women and they’re substantial—Hong Kong and Dallas. Women who interview at this firm will see successful women at all levels of practice, including our younger partnership classes. This most recent class was at parity between men and women. It’s a very rigorous process. There may not be parity every year, but this year there was, and that is something to be very pleased about.
So, you pay close attention to statistics.
Oh, absolutely. If you don’t test [your value system] rigorously and you don’t monitor it, including looking backward, I think your chances of staying the course are diminished. We are quite rigorous about looking at our statistics.
What changes do you think are urgently needed to make law firm life more attractive to women?
Well, one area I think we were an early mover is around the concept of a nonlinear career path. I think firms would be wise to accept the reality that younger generations are interested in broader experiences—that they are less likely to have only one job over the course of a career. If you really want the best talent, you will recruit that talent broadly and you will look to people who have jumped out of a law firm and gone into academia or gone into government or frankly, like my mother, who took 20 years off to raise a family before she went back to teaching.
Again, I believe in the nonlinear career path. I believe that the experience of working for other institutions, working for clients, working for nonprofits—all of those experiences create better problem-solvers, more innovative thinkers. And so, we do look for our talent more broadly than fresh out of law school or by hiring laterally from other law firms, and I’m proud of that.
But I think it actually makes really good sense in a competitive world where you want the best people. And I think the profession has been slow to understand this. I suspect our competition will catch on more and more.
Well, certainly it seems clients are paying attention more than ever.
Right. And by the way, we are very pleased to have somebody from an in-house legal department come to Sidley. They bring invaluable experience in terms of having walked in the shoes of our client—that kind of empathy is very, very valuable.
So, I think people moving back and forth from law firms into those other professions or industries is healthy–it’s certainly been good for Sidley.