Akin Gump chair Kim Koopersmith: I’m trying not to bore my partners

Last March Kim Koopersmith became the first female firm-wide chair of Akin Gump and one of the few female lawyers to lead a US firm.

Last week Koopersmith popped in to her firm’s London office ahead of the firm-wide partners’ conference, which kicks off next week (1 May) in Washington DC. The Lawyer caught up with her as she looked back on her first year in charge and ahead to her future plans as Akin’s lead lawyer.

“You need to be business savvy and culturally adept,” says Koopersmith, as the talk turns to what is required to be a successful firm in an increasingly international marketplace.

The catalyst for that topic came courtesy of Akin partner Sebastian Rice. The US firm’s London managing partner since 1 January this year (following former head Steve Blakeley’s retirement) had come to the meeting fresh from advising on one of the market’s biggest recent cross-border deals, the $4.4bn sale of telecoms operator VimpelCom’s 51 per cent stake in Orascom Telecom Algérie to the Fonds National d’Investissement (London office corporate partner Dan Walsh in London led the deal along with Rice).

“As a firm gets bigger the awareness of cultural sensitivities gets more important,” says Rice, a man who, as the former managing partner of Akin’s Moscow office, should know. “On cross-border deals that’s what sets you apart.”

Cultural sensitivities and international cooperation are big themes at Koopersmith’s Akin. The lawyer who for years has played a key role in promoting diversity issues at the firm is equally keen to encourage cross-border working across its practice groups. Indeed, this will be the theme of next weekend’s conference, just as it was last year.

“I’m trying not to bore my partners but it’s the same topic of ‘connectivity’,” admits Koopersmith. “Our strategy is focused on bringing together the firm’s globally focused partners and generating more work that way. Just under 50 per cent of the firm’s work is currently done outside of the practice group that had the original matter or relationship.”

Those cross referrals between practice groups are understood to have been worth in excess of $350m last year at Akin. 

London, says Koopersmith, is central to the firm’s growth effort. The firm’s 2013 financial results suggest that it is paying off, with last year’s turnover up 7 per from $775m to $828m and net income up by 18 per cent from $268m to $315m (4 March 2014).

As for diversity, Koopersmith, who oversaw the creation of Akin’s Women’s Professional Development Initiative, is no fan of the recent spate of firms announcing diversity targets. They include Pinsent Masons, which last month unveiled plans to boost gender diversity across the firm by targeting a 30 per cent female partnership, setting an interim goal of 25 per cent within the next four years (3 March 2014).

“I can’t say I’d be comfortable doing that,” admits Koopersmith. “There might be a better way of achieving the same goal.”

Rather than targets, Koopersmith is in favour of robust methods of making sure people get the opportunities to emerge as leaders or partner candidates. That might mean a firm embracing flexible working or allowing lawyers, including senior partners, to operate on a reduced workload basis.

”I’m a huge advocate of that as I’ve done it myself,” she says, adding that having someone in such a senior position being an advocate is particularly helpful. When Koopersmith returned to working full time she drafted Akin’s reduced workload policy and encouraged its adoption as official firm policy. It is still in force today, something she says she endorses wholeheartedly as chair of the firm.

While diversity issues are always likely to figure high on Koopersmith’s agenda, top of the list is continuing Akin’s trajectory of growth. And as partners at the firm will no doubt be hearing next weekend in Washington, that means connectivity.

As she puts it, “I care less about the offices and more about practice area movement and revenue growth”.

Expect to see more movement of people between Akin’s international network as its increasingly shifts from internal matters to external drivers.

If that means its lawyers also expand their cultural sensibilities, so much the better.