How I Made It to Law Firm Leadership: ‘Listen to the People Who Express Interest in You,’ Says Shonette Gaston of Blank Rome
Law.com's How I Made It series features conversations with legal industry leaders about how they climbed the ladder of success and what they learned along the way. Below is a featured interview with Blank Rome's Shonette Gaston.
Shonette Gaston, Blank Rome, New York
Job title: Chief Operating Officer
Law school and year of graduation: MBA, University of Maryland Global Campus, 2009
How long have you been at the firm? I joined Blank Rome in August 2021, after more than a decade in executive and management roles at several prominent U.S. law firms.
How long were you a partner at the firm before being promoted to firm leadership? I started my career as an executive assistant in 1998 at Debevoise & Plimpton then was recruited by O’Melveny & Myers to manage the firm’s office of the chair. I rose through the ranks at O’Melveny, moving from chief of staff to director level as I took on more demanding practice management and leadership roles, then served in senior positions at two other major U.S. firms.
Were you a partner at another firm before joining your present firm? If so, which one? How long were you there and when did you leave? I took on my C-Suite position in 2017, when Robins Kaplan appointed me chief operating officer. I served in that role for four years.
What year were you promoted to your current position? I came to Blank Rome as COO in August 2021.
Were there any surprises you faced after becoming a leader at the firm? I’ve been in law firms my entire career, so I’ve seen it all, from the ground up. Everything we do is so different from the corporate world. People who have entered the legal industry from other sectors have told me that the transition was challenging but for me that was not new.
One change, of course, is that when you move from being a director to the C-Suite is that you end up overseeing your peers—including your friends. It’s an interesting transition, but if you assert yourself and establish strong and balanced relationships with colleagues at all levels of your organization early on in your career, your elevation to leadership should be seamless.
What has been the biggest change, day-to-day, in your routine since becoming a leader at the firm? The biggest difference is the amount of time I spend both talking to and listening to people. It is really a 24/7 job. I get calls from people all across the firm. Regardless of their role or needs, people are often seeking guidance and answers to help them come up with solutions.
Many times, they know the solution and just need to talk it through or hear another perspective and I’m happy to help—whether it is just lending an ear or rolling up our sleeves together to tackle a major issue.
What do you think was the deciding point for the firm in elevating you to your current position? Was it your performance on a specific case? A personality trait? Making connections with the right people? Big law firms need leadership who understands the business side of what we do. By the time I joined Blank Rome, I had more than 25 years of leadership experience at top law firms, both on the business side and in operations.
When I first became COO, I was coming from senior director roles at Covington & Burling. So the leadership at Robins Kaplan knew I had the gravitas to move into the C-Suite at their firm. Robins Kaplan’s previous COO had been there for over 30 years so when the firm chose me, it also chose a different direction for firm operations.
At Blank Rome, I was replacing someone who’d been in the role for 15 years, and who was also a partner. I am not a lawyer; I am a businessperson – and that’s what Blank Rome wanted. The firm has grown significantly in the past several years and needed someone who understood the business of the firm to support that growth.
How do you utilize technology to benefit the firm/practice and/or business development? This is a critical priority for Blank Rome. We’re spending a lot of time and effort on this as we move towards a more metric-driven environment, with the aim of measuring profitability across practices and operations and being more responsive to our clients.
For example, we are getting ready to roll out a new dashboard that will give every lawyer access to their many metrics, putting everything at their fingertips—right down to the narratives on bills. Hopefully it will give attorneys insights they didn’t have before.
Lawyers need to be able to talk with clients about legal spend and budgets. Tools like this mean lawyers can be on a call and just pull up the information they need and dig into it, so they can be responsive to clients. Everything we do is driven by how we serve our clients effectively and efficiently.
Blank Rome is also making it easier for lawyers to do essential tasks on their phones. Lawyers are always on the go – whether it’s in client meetings or in court – but the pandemic really underscored how well lawyers can function remotely, and we want to provide them with the tools to be successful wherever they are. Now, we can complete timesheets or run conflict checks on our phones, among other things.
What advice would you give to someone whose goal is to ascend to firm leadership?
- Listen to the people who express interest in you. Years ago, Michelle Egan, O’Melveny’s managing director of talent, asked me pointedly, “What do you want to be?” I gave her an honest answer and earned the opportunity to discuss my career path with a powerful mentor.
- Always say yes. Stay open to taking lots of different projects and discovering what you love. Don’t be afraid to do anything. When I took on firmwide practice and legal project management roles, I surprised myself by discovering that I loved finance.
- Pay more attention to the people behind the curtain. Starting as a secretary and working as a law firm business professional gave me insight into how firms are managed that most people overlook. Law firm business professionals do mission critical work; their talent and skills are necessary to make things happen. Listening closely to those people can boost your success in your role.
- Look out for talent and trouble. Both are going to keep bubbling up, and you need to know how to tell the difference between them. Bruce Boulware, the former COO at O’Melveny & Myers, told me this when I was very junior. It was some of the best advice I’ve gotten, and I share it with the people I work with. It has come in handy in spotting both talented people who can advance to serve the firm in new ways, and areas and roles that may need improvement.
Who had the greatest influence in your career that helped propel you to your leadership role? Please provide name, job title and a brief explanation.
- Michelle Egan, Managing Director of Talent, O’Melveny & Myers. She took an interest in me when I was starting out in my career, and her counsel and guidance is still very much a part of what I do.
- Bruce Boulware, former COO at O’Melveny & Myers. He was a mentor to me. He gave excellent advice. And when I was getting my MBA, he tasked me with managing projects that allowed me to work across all of the firm’s operational areas – human resources, technology, finance, etc., which exposed me to all the functional areas in a law firm.
Knowing what you know now, if you had a chance to advise or mentor your younger self (at any stage), what advice would you give to yourself and/or what would you do differently? I would have learned the numbers earlier. I never liked numbers until I took finance classes as part of my MBA program. It was like the world opened for me. It’s a different kind of math and involves a different skillset. I love numbers now! Nothing makes me happier than looking at a spreadsheet. Because if you do it right, the numbers tell a story. I can look at our data on a matter and I can tell immediately if we’re making or losing money, and why.
Do you have a prediction on how the legal industry will evolve over the next several years? Consolidation. The biggest firms will get bigger as they take advantage of the challenging economic climate to gain market share through acquisitions. That said, I don’t know if we’ll see as many megamergers as in the past. Right now, the top 100 or so firms and the niche firms are really growing at about the same rate, with the same amount of demand.
Technology is also going to shift much of what will do. That will have a knock-on effect on talent. Chat GPT, for example, can basically write things for you. Will firms start hiring people at junior levels who know the law and can run the software? The legal industry is still clinging to some historic inefficiencies, but change is coming, and we must be ready for it.
We are also dealing with generational change. Five generations are in the workplace right now, which is so interesting. Over the next five years, Gen Z will change how law firms work.
What is the one behavior or trait that you have seen derail more leaders’ careers? Not listening. You must learn to listen. In a fast-paced environment, it’s a difficult skill to implement at times. My mind works quickly, and my instinct is to start solving your problem before you’ve finished telling me what it is. But as a leader, you must listen, because there’s always more to the story.
I’ve also seen some leaders struggle because they make decisions based on wishful thinking versus reality. Law firms are loyal to our people: we don’t want to have difficult conversations with folks who aren’t performing as well as they may have in the past. We get stuck in our stories. Making decisions based on what used to be does not move things forward it becomes the status quo.
Please share with us any firm or industry initiatives that you are working on as well as the impact you hope to achieve. Analytics is a central focus for me and drives how we educate our lawyers in the long term. They need to understand the basic methodology and overcome any aversion to utilizing it.
They don’t have to become data scientists—their highest and best use is, of course, legal work—but our clients have become much more metric-driven, and they expect to be able to have metric-driven conversations with their service providers.
As a law firm leader, what impact would you like to have on your firm and/or the legal industry as a whole? I want to marry the business of law with the practice of law. That goes back to analytics, and, on the practice side, overcoming concerns that lawyers may have around measurement, and understanding issues around quality vs. quantity. Attorneys don’t need to be experts on the business side, but they do have to understand what we are doing and why. Marry those two aspects, and we can grow the business while providing our clients with the best lawyers and the best legal advice they can get.
"How I Made It to Law Firm Leadership: ‘Listen to the People Who Express Interest in You,’ Says Shonette Gaston of Blank Rome," by was published on June 8, 2023, in Law.com, as part of Law.com’s How I Made It series.