As one of Joe Flom’s key protégés, Peter Atkins, Skadden’s longest-tenured partner, helped fuel our ascendancy as a transformational leader in the legal profession while developing a reputation as one of the country’s premier M&A attorneys. Before transitioning to of counsel at the end of 2021, Mr. Atkins wrote the following note to the firm with his perspectives and remembrances about his 50+ years at Skadden. The note outlines the key aspects of the firm that help us continue our heritage of innovation and extend our unique culture.
* * * * *
November 15, 2021
TO ALL MY SKADDEN COLLEAGUES:
I started my relationship with Skadden as a Summer Associate in 1967. Fifty four years later I find myself as the oldest (at least chronologically) and longest serving current Skadden Partner. At the end of this year my tenure as a Skadden Partner will end, but my relationship will continue, as Of Counsel.
It’s been an incredible journey — filled with serious challenges, amazing Firm accomplishments, great colleagues across the full spectrum of Firm personnel and enormous fun!
For many years, I’ve understood that I am one of the luckiest people on the planet. A large part of that luck was my becoming a Skadden lawyer — and benefiting immeasurably from the association.
As I move to this next stage, I would like to share with you some of my thoughts and recollections about key facets of Skadden that make it a remarkable institution that, among many other things, provided me and so many others with a special platform to practice law.
- Fundamental People Values. I was brought up to believe in certain fundamental people values, including treating everyone fairly, equitably and with respect, and with concern for their well-being. I wanted to work at a law firm that valued people this way. I found a commitment to these values at Skadden from the outset. And, over the years, our awareness of and commitment to this important area has continued to be very focused, including through our ongoing efforts in support of diversity, equity and inclusion within and outside the Firm and supporting the personal well-being of our colleagues.
- Ethical Standards. Two things I learned very early at Skadden were, first, that high standards of professional and personal ethics were key components of being a lawyer and, second, that the Firm really cared about this. As a small law firm when I started (I was the 19th lawyer), there was no training time apart from on the job training — except on the subject of ethics. I can recall from several early “training talks” with partners — including Joe Flom — the admonition that we were expected to live up to the highest standards of professional and personal ethics — and if we ever had any questions about how to deal with ethical issues, we should immediately consult with a senior lawyer / partner. Frankly, I appreciated the clarity and declaration of importance about the subject. Many things have changed since then in the practice of law, but, I’m happy to say, not this standard of conduct at Skadden.
- Vision, Revision and Leadership. The hallmarks of a great organization include that it’s built on a vision, that it understands that implementation of the vision requires continual reassessment and revision, and that it selects leaders who understand, support and guide the organization to embrace and advance the vision. Skadden has each of these hallmarks.
The essence of our vision was and is to build a world class, client service oriented law firm that is sustainable over the long term. The driving force behind this vision was Joe Flom. Joe focused on building an institution, not a personal fiefdom. He advocated as key components of that vision virtually all of the attributes described in this note. Perhaps his greatest virtue was his appreciation of the role of sharing in creating an institution — and his commitment to being a living example of the concept. As one of Joe’s direct beneficiaries, I can attest to that — and to the importance of the underlying Skadden culture point, that our clients are Firm clients.
The implementation aspect of the Skadden vision is reflected in our areas of practice and capabilities, and our geographic footprint. Today we have more than 50 defined practice areas (as well as numerous other specialized advice capabilities) and more than 20 offices worldwide. Our current snapshot is quite different than when I started at the Firm. It represents an ongoing receptivity to reassessing where we are and where we should be in providing businesses with relevant legal services.
As to the Firm’s leadership, two things are true — the vital importance of high quality leadership has always been recognized, and we have developed a participatory selection process that consistently has produced what we need — a succession of first class Executive Partners.
- Lawyers Involvement in Governance / Administration. Any organization our size needs a lot of governance and administration to support it. What is particularly important at Skadden is that these functions are deliberately broadly provided, in part, from across our full spectrum of lawyers (including associates at different levels, counsel and partners). Beyond operational necessity, this reflects our cultural goal to have our lawyers involved in the full fabric of the Firm’s governance / administration.
- Collegiality, Assistance and Teamwork. Collegiality, assistance and teamwork are defining features of our culture. They are active ingredients that I view as differentiating Skadden, both in terms of providing “more than just a job” work satisfaction and the best client service.
I’ve always found Skadden to be a collegial place, where people work together, sharing responsibility for an assignment. Importantly, even without shared responsibility, Skadden has been a place where colleagues are willing to help one another. An open door for discussion and an open brain for ideas — these are invaluable resources. I learned quickly that no one knows everything (least of all me); that virtually every work product can be improved; and that “road testing” ideas, contract language, a trial argument, etc., often can be constructive and sometimes can save a lot of grief! So my emphatic advice is: When you need to, reach out.
The remarkable power of Skadden teamwork on behalf of our clients has been demonstrated — and praised by our clients — over and over again.
- Commitment to Highest Quality. Not surprisingly, a commitment to providing the highest quality lawyering is a core element of Skadden’s platform. I learned early that delivering the highest quality work was key to Skadden’s — and each of its lawyer’s — success. I also learned early that quality assessments internally and externally could (and would) be made based not only on important items (e.g., developing a unique transaction structure to fit a unique situation) but also on “small” items (e.g., misspelling a client’s name or misdescribing her/his title). I would like to pass on a few “quality control” habits that have stood me in good stead. Strive for the best and take the time needed to do so. Critically review and test ideas and work product — whether developed by you or others. Consult with your colleagues on important points, decisions, etc. And check those “small” items!
- “Upper Margin” Work. “Upper margin” work was already a Firm mantra when I started at Skadden. It focused our practice areas mainly on those involving or supporting delivering high value legal expertise and performance. It demanded — and still demands — a commitment to lawyering that is proactive, creative, thoughtful, careful, responsive, practical and never complacent. Playing in that league, with a team full of colleagues, made lawyering at Skadden lots of positive things for me — including presenting professionally challenging and enjoyable work, a source of pride and sense of accomplishment, and my most used word, fun.
- Commitment to the Best Client Service. Commitment to the best client service is a fundamental principle of the business of the Firm and has been since Skadden was founded in 1948. This all-out commitment set us apart for many years and was instrumental in the Firm’s ascendance to the top tier of business law firms. Our competition has caught on, so it’s crucial for us to maintain this commitment at the highest level. The clearest illustration to me of the value of this principle involved a rather mundane act — returning a phone call. For many years, Joe Flom had repeatedly made the point that we should return all client calls very promptly (within an hour or two). This seemed like good, practical advice. So one day I heard my name paged in an airport, while I was desperately trying to get a replacement flight for one that was canceled. The message was to call my secretary, which I did. She said the CEO of a company I’d just represented in a merger wanted to talk to me. I called the CEO while running through the airport still searching for a flight. I reached him and he asked if I could represent the independent directors of a company of which he was Chairman in dealing with a buyout proposal. He also said, in passing, that he was glad I’d called back quickly, because in a few minutes he was planning to call the next lawyer on his list! By the way, the company was RJR Nabisco — and, as the saying goes, the rest is history. More generally, visible responsiveness and dedication to a client’s interests (which goes beyond working on a particular matter) is a great strategy for building relationships / friendships and business.
- Attorney Development. I would be remiss if I didn’t specifically mention attorney training and development. We’ve come a long way since my “on the job training” days. In fact, we have an established commitment to attorney training and development that is second to none. Nothing could be more germane to the welfare of our lawyers — and, frankly, in this day and age, it is essential to developing the high quality lawyers we want and need going forward. Moreover, for the lawyers who leave, the better trained and developed they are, the better qualified they will be to succeed.
- Commitment to Pro Bono / Public Service. The Firm’s long-time and extensive commitment to pro bono legal service, to public and charitable service generally by our lawyers and other Firm personnel and to working to improve society reflect an important Skadden core value. Our commitment is manifested in so many ways. I would like to mention two specifically. Since our early days, the Firm has been a leading provider of pro bono legal services. In the last decade alone, we have performed nearly 2 million hours of pro bono legal work. In addition, our creation in 1988 of the ground-breaking Skadden Fellowship Program has enabled over 900 talented and dedicated Skadden Fellows to engage full time in public interest law.
- “One Firm” Approach. While probably implicit in what I’ve said above, our one Firm approach is what I would describe as an overarching Firm super-power that deserves special mention. By supporting, and being supported by, this approach, we optimize our ability to deliver, on a client-specific basis, the best we have to offer.
* * * * *
I had the great good fortune to have Joe Flom as a mentor, partner and friend for many years, and to participate with him and many others, including you, in making his vision a reality. I am indebted to all of you for collectively developing and continuing to sustain Skadden as a unique, world class law firm — that has important values, a distinct culture and a sense of responsibility toward its people and society at large.