Sabrina Presnell Rockoff is the Managing Partner of McGuire, Wood & Bissette. Sabrina frequently trains human resources professionals and managers through her involvement with Western Carolina Industries, Inc., the Asheville Independent Restaurant Association and the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce. Sabrina practiced for 10 years with large international law firms prior to returning to her hometown.
What career path would you have pursued if you weren’t a lawyer?
Psychologist. One of my favorite parts of my job as an employment lawyer is what I have learned about the human condition; what motivates us? How do you motivate your employees to do what you need them to do? Why do people break the rules? I’m fascinated by humanity. I also love to solve problems. As a mathlete through high school, I have an intense love for solving all kinds of problems. Being an employment lawyer allows me to marry these two interests—learning about human beings and solving problems. I think being a psychologist would have fed those interests in similar and different ways.
Name a person who has had a tremendous impact on you as a leader. Maybe someone who has been a mentor to you? Why and how did this person impact your life?
Randall Avram at Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton was my mentor for about eight years of my practice. He was my first boss in the legal industry and shaped my love for being an employment lawyer. He has had a profound effect on the way I believe associates should be treated—working on real cases, having client contact, and being treated like a full member of the team from the beginning. When I am stuck in a dilemma about how to handle a situation with a younger lawyer, I think about how Randy would have handled it. He also taught me a good deal about business development and how to develop a trusted advisor relationship, even with large clients.
What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
“Give it space.” My rabbi, Batsheva Meiri, gave me that advice when dealing with a difficult situation, and I give that same advice to my colleagues and my kids (they are sick of hearing it during quarantine, I assure you) In law firms, our clients constantly want an answer now! We are rewarded for being responsive. We deal in high stakes and high-conflict situations, and sometimes we aren’t very good at turning that mindset off when dealing with one another. I always try to respond to client questions and needs within 24 hours, regardless of the day or time the need arises. But managing our people requires that we give problems and issues a little space before we react. Often everyone involved in a management problem will be able to consider it more rationally after we’ve gotten out of the heat of the moment. Giving it space also often allows us the ability to give something else to our colleagues—grace.
What advice would you give a new managing partner?
I would give the advice Tom Grella, a former managing partner of our firm, gave me when I became a managing partner: Leaders are the ultimate servants of the organization. I have a sticky note on my monitor that says, “Capture the wisdom and spirit of the firm.” I consider it my honor to be tasked with doing that every day. And when the going gets tough, as it undoubtedly does, I remind myself of that overarching duty.
What are the most important/difficult decisions you make as a leader of your firm?
The most important decisions are those that keep the firm true to its culture and who we say we are. A couple of years before I became managing partner, our firm identified our mission and our values. I try to refer to those values every time I have to make a decision in the firm. Sometimes those decisions have to do with how to handle a difficult client situation, other times they may be around the realization that an employee is not interested in living those values and is harming the culture with his or her behavior. Protecting and growing the culture we have all agreed we want for our firm is one of my most important roles.
What is one characteristic that you believe every leader should possess?
Leaders have to be able to show up with their hearts open. I have another sticky note on my monitor that reads, “How do I show up here with an open heart?” To me, showing up with an open heart means having an intense love for the organization you lead and for the people in it. It means being able to put your own ego aside and do what is best for the organization every time. It also means being able to meet those who disagree with you and lash out at you with compassion, while remaining steadfast in supporting the organization as a whole. In short, it is not easy, but I’ve become convinced it is essential to effective leadership.
What is the biggest challenge facing law firms today?
Remaining relevant. In our world of faster, cheaper, better, as a society, we are discounting more and more the types of relationships that law firms traditionally have relied upon for work. As more legal work becomes a commodity, only those firms who manage to remain trusted advisors to their clients will succeed. The trusted advisor relationship is even more difficult to pass from lawyer to lawyer. Developing a culture in your firm that encourages and rewards attorneys for developing the trusted advisor relationship and then passing that relationship down to younger attorneys when the time comes is going to be key to the survival of law firms.
What does the legal profession need to do to improve opportunities for diverse lawyers?
This could be a very long list, but I will answer with what I think is at the heart of the issue in many ways. We must recognize our own implicit bias in our hiring practices and decisions. We must recognize that we gravitate toward people who have similar experiences to us, attended the same schools we did, and look like us. And we must want to change that.
What’s the best book you’ve read this year?
Say Grace: How the Restaurant Business Saved My Life by Steve Palmer. Steve is the managing partner and founder of the Indigo Road Hospitality Group. In this book, he explains how his employers helped him find the road to sobriety and how his experiences have influenced the way he leads his business. While it isn’t about the legal industry, his leadership lessons are very relevant to managing a law firm.
If you could have lunch with anyone who would it be?
Johnny Cash. As the first person in my family to go to college, an amateur poet, and a lover of music, I can think of no one I would rather lunch with more. As I often say, “There are few things that a little bourbon and a lot of Johnny Cash can’t cure.”
About the Author
Micah Buchdahl is an attorney and a past chair of the ABA Law Practice Division. He is the associate editor of Law Practice Today. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 856.234.4334, and on Twitter at @mbuchdahl.