Rethinkers
Anticipating needs and embracing change.
Eric Friedman
Executive Partner, Skadden

It was the summer of 1988 when Eric Friedman first joined Skadden. He was a summer associate and his plans were simple: gain superb legal training and within two years move on to the business world.

Working for clients like Citigroup, NASDAQ and AT&T, Eric quickly found himself getting exactly the experience he was after. But "there was never a 'right time' to move on." He continues, "I never imagined many of the opportunities and complex client challenges that would come my way." Twenty years later, Eric was named Executive Partner (Skadden’s version of Managing Partner). "The past two years have flown by — in no small part because it’s been such an unprecedented time for the legal profession and for Skadden," he says, "You could say I finally found my way to the business side.”

Skadden was already facing globalization, specialization, and increased competition for business, but the firm was confronted with a host of new challenges resulting from the global financial crisis. Eric, who officially assumed the job in April 2009, waded through the new landscape — an increased focus on value, client requirements to disaggregate legal services, and lawyer overcapacity — with optimism. “I believe the current environment provides us with a unique opportunity to make the legal profession stronger than ever,” he says.

Eric describes the firm’s strategy for continued success, “Since our founding 63 years ago, our approach to managing change has been to anticipate our clients’ needs, rather than to latch on to a current trend.”

To that end, Skadden has changed to a global practice model, with no geographic barriers. They’ve also added client teams and an industry-centric focus, enabling them to better understand clients' businesses and anticipate their challenges while coordinating service around the globe.

During the recent downturn, Skadden took a unique approach to overcapacity. The firm created a furlough program — called Sidebar Plus — that offered associates the opportunity to spend a year in public service or other endeavors, while receiving a portion of their salaries and law school loan repayment assistance. “Participants gained valuable new experiences which, over the long term, will bring broader perspectives to our clients; and the organizations for which they worked benefited from the contributions of our talented lawyers.” Lawyers who chose not to participate remained at the firm and had more work. So, unlike most firms, Skadden did not lay off any of its lawyers during the recession.

Social responsibility has also played a uniquely important role at Skadden. Described as “A legal Peace Corps” by The Los Angeles Times, The Skadden Fellowship Foundation awards two-year grants to graduating law students seeking public-interest work. Last December (2010), the firm named its 600th Skadden Fellow, more than 90% of whom have remained in public service. Skadden also created an honors program at the City College of New York, hoping to increase the number of individuals from diverse backgrounds in the in the legal profession. “Since Skadden’s founding, our firm has valued diversity.  We’ve prioritized attracting, developing, and retaining a diverse group of lawyers.”

The firm’s approach is working. In 2010, when The Financial Times issued its first Innovative Lawyers report for the United States, Skadden topped the list thanks to Eric’s leadership and his colleagues’ willingness to think outside the box. And in March of 2011, The National Law Journal named him one of the “Most Influential” law firm leaders.

So how does Eric define success? “It’s remarkable to reflect on the firm’s accomplishments I’ve witnessed over the past two decades," he says. "As Executive Partner, I want to ensure our position as the market leader for the next 20 years and beyond. We’ll define future success by the results we achieve for clients in handling their largest, most complex challenges and the relationships we continue to develop and maintain with them." •