Rod Freeman, CooleyName: Rod Freeman

Firm: Cooley

Position: Partner

In Hot 100 for: Combining product liability law with tech expertise; Grenfell Tower fire public inquiry. Read his full Hot 100 profile.

What’s your most vivid memory from being a trainee/pupil?

I started my career in a small high-street firm in the suburbs of Sydney, where I was given a lot of responsibility as a trainee. In that environment, you learn very quickly to deal with real people, helping them deal with real-life issues. I wrote their wills, I handled their property transactions, I helped them with their small family businesses. I used to keep a box of tissues in my desk because sometimes my clients would become very emotional when talking about their personal issues. I’ve carried so much of that learning with me throughout my career.

The clients these days are usually less emotional – I don’t need that box of tissues quite so often.  But even when handling some of the biggest problems for the biggest and most sophisticated companies in the world, the clients I deal with each day are real people, juggling a professional life with a family life just like me, and looking for help in solving business problems that they feel very personally about. I think that an ability to connect with clients on a personal level, no matter who they are, is a fundamental part of being a successful and an effective lawyer.

Who has been the most influential person in your career? Why, and how have they helped you?

I’ve had the privilege of working with many talented people throughout my career, and I’ve tried to watch and learn something from all of them.  But the most influential person on my career is definitely my father.  He was not a lawyer. But he showed me the power and importance of always treating everyone with respect, and of being honest and straightforward with people in everything I do. And of always acting with integrity.  He was a good man, who sadly passed away too early a few years ago.  I always remember what he taught me, and try to follow the example he set.

What was the best career decision you ever made, and why?

It took me a long time to decide to leave my previous firm which I’d been at for 17 years.  Once I first started to see that a change might be the right thing, it was well over a year of hard and very difficult thinking before I finally found Cooley, and decided to move.  I think I have an inbuilt “loyalty” streak that biases my thinking and makes changes like that especially difficult.  It was really hard. And especially towards the end, I lost a lot of sleep worrying about my team, who I knew were probably not expecting what I had to do, and were going to have to make some difficult decisions themselves.

It would have been easier to stay, and I wobbled on that right until the final decision.  But the move has turned out to be exactly the right thing, which I definitely now wish I had done sooner.  The step out into a modern, forward-thinking firm like Cooley has been an invigorating career experience, way beyond my expectations. I’m surrounded by brilliant people who are absolutely at the top of their game, both in London and in the US. And I have some fantastic clients who have been patient with me through the transition and as I’ve taken the time to build the right team.

A lot is said about the Cooley culture, and while I had a healthy scepticism about this “culture” thing through the interview process (after all, every firm says they have a great culture), it’s actually very real, and exactly what I was looking for once I decided to move from my previous firm.  Over the prior few years, I had become interested to observe that the most successful innovative clients I was working with all had fantastic internal cultures, truly flexible and supportive of creativity and entrepreneurialism, and where they are structured to reward team-driven results rather than individual performance.

For whatever reason, those characteristics don’t seem to come easily to big traditional law firms. Sure, there’s a lot of talk, but little real delivery – at least by the standards set by our clients. But I’ve seen that Cooley is different, it emulates the approach of its clients, and does it well.  That culture of innovation, support, and results-focused teamwork is very much in the DNA of the firm at every level, and has been decades. It’s a powerful thing.

It’s really exciting to be in a place like Cooley that is having such an impact in the market and that is moving as quickly as our clients.  It’s very satisfying to see the whole team around me so energised by that.  There’s a real sense of the future here – you can feel the buzz as you walk into the office each day, and as we know that we are working with companies who are changing the world, and that we have a role in making that happen.

A few times in my career I’ve stepped out of the norm to do something different – taken what some have perceived to be a risk, to go after an opportunity that other people weren’t seeing. I think it might be the Australian in me just a bit. My instincts on that front have served me pretty well over those times.  I made the move to Cooley much more with an eye on my vision of where the real opportunities for Products lawyers will grow over the next 10 years or so, rather than what was going to happen in the first 12 months. But it’s been a huge step ahead for me from day one, thanks to great colleagues and loyal clients around me.  Yes, a really good career decision.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to get to where you are/do the job you do?

I didn’t grow up wanting to be a product liability lawyer.  I fell into it by chance many years ago when I was a young aspiring litigator in a small suburban firm in Australia.  One day I was handed a small case that quickly became a very big complex “bet the company” litigation (silicone breast implant litigation), and which was to occupy much of the next eight years of my career.  I grabbed that opportunity with both arms, and it became a springboard for a career that has taken me from a humble start in the suburbs of Sydney, to places I would never have imagined.

So my advice to young lawyers is always to “keep looking sideways”, just a little bit.  A train will come past that may not be the train you were expecting, but if it’s the one that will take your career to places beyond your expectations, you’d better jump on it.

Oh, and most importantly, along that journey, always remember the lessons of my father.  Always.

What work or career-related project or activity would you really like to do, but don’t have time for?

I feel very privileged to have a job that I love, and that has taken me to places I could not have imagined when I was at the start of my career. My journey has been somewhat unconventional, and I am a big believer in the success that good people can find when the right opportunities are opened up for them. I have always been passionate about working with members of my team, helping to train them, seeing their talents and their passion grow, and celebrating in their own successes.

My career has opened up wonderful opportunities and life experiences for me, and I’ve always felt a debt to share that privilege with those around me who are so committed and who help build what we have. I would like to spend more time being involved in my firm’s career-development initiatives to help lawyers find their own paths to get to where they want to be in their careers and in their lives.  And finding ways to create opportunities for them.  Yes, I’m going to make more time for that I think.