Deborah Read knew from her research that clients were becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the way legal services were delivered. Gone were the days when they were content to let lawyers handle matters however they saw fit.
“The clients said, ‘Wait a minute. Nobody in the world buys anything like that,’” she says.
When Read became firm wide managing partner of business law firm Thompson Hine in 2012 — the first woman to lead a large Cleveland law firm and one of only 10 women then in the position at the country’s 200 biggest law firms — she began changing all that.
Under her direction, Thompson Hine began focusing on project management. Work plans were developed. Proprietary software was created to facilitate budgeting — and lawyers, most of whom were accustomed to simply billing hours started to use it. The system now requires 11 of the firm’s 16 practice groups to create a budget for some significant aspects of their work — those projected to bill over $50,000, for example.
“If you don’t have a budget in the system after a stated period of time of opening a matter, you can’t bill clients,” Read explains. “The system shuts down.”
Those budgets in turn instigate conversations when there’s a misalignment in what Thompson Hine is planning to spend on a matter and the value a client attaches to it.
“Our goal here is … to be the most competent but the most cost-effective provider,” Read says.
The changes are just one example of how Read has increased Thompson Hine’s size and demand for its services. During her tenure, the firm has grown from 355 lawyers in seven locations to nearly 400 attorneys in eight offices. Gross revenues have increased from $180 million in 2011 to $250 million in 2021. Ronn Richard, president and CEO of the Cleveland Foundation, has known Read for 19 years, both as the foundation’s general counsel and a personal consigliere. He attributes her success to an unwavering dedication to her profession and the clients she serves.
“Every time I talk to her, it’s so easy to forget that she’s not a member of my staff, but she is an indispensable member of the Cleveland Foundation family,” he says. “She treats every client like she works for their firm, not just for the law firm that advises them.”
Read began her undergraduate years at Ohio University intent on becoming an investigative reporter. The Greensburg, Pennsylvania, native’s aspirations changed when a professor suggested she consider becoming a lawyer. After graduating from Boston University School of Law, she accepted a position as an associate in the corporate tax section of what is now K&L Gates in Washington, D.C. Four years later, in 1986, she followed her lawyer husband, John, to Cleveland and Thompson Hine as a tax associate.
In 1989, Read became what she believes to be the first associate placed on Thompson Hine’s new lawyer committee, which at the time hired new lawyers.
As the executive committee’s hiring partner, she created a program that better integrated lateral hires. She explains that when these attorneys make the move to Thompson Hine from other firms, they bring with them clients who can bring business to Thompson Hine lawyers with expertise in other areas. Perhaps more important to the lateral hires, Thompson Hine has clients who can benefit from their expertise.
“Nobody wants to pick up their practice and be a solo practitioner at another firm,” she says. “They want to relate to the other lawyers in the firm. They want their practice to grow at the other firm.”
As managing partner, Read further refined the hiring process to reduce biases. In 2017, she implemented a behavioral interview process, blind assessment of writing skills and a blind 16-factor trait assessment. Results are compared with key traits — respectfulness — seen in successful Thompson Hine partners.
The practices have helped the firm achieve its goal of increasing diversity. The number of attorneys who identify as black or African-American has nearly doubled. In 2020, the firm began implementing a formal diversity action plan that focuses on the hiring, development and retention of diverse associates.
“Having a diverse group of professionals really helps enrich the decision making,” she says. “I think it’s very important to have a group of professionals that mirrors the group of professionals at your clients’ [organizations] or mirrors the group of customers that your clients serve.”
Read also put a transition program for our senior lawyers in place, a move made after she discovered in 2013 that one third of Thompson Hine’s client relationships were handled by attorneys over 59 years old. The firm enters an arrangement with a partner in which income is based on contributions to transitioning clients to younger successors, as well as billing hours.
“If you’re not proactive in handling what [clients] fear, which is, ‘Hey, this person that I have worked with at your firm is going to retire soon, you do risk losing the client,” she says.
Her biggest challenge now: fully reengaging the Thompson Hine workforce so they can tackle vital tasks such as brainstorming and training lawyers — things Read says she believes are best done in-person and require more time and effort to accomplish when people are working remotely. The firm has launched a Future of Work initiative designed to ensure it excels in a hybrid work environment. It includes how partners can best advance the skill development of the more junior lawyers they work with.
The Cleveland Foundation isn’t Read’s only client. She continues to practice in the tax-exempt, nonprofit corporate and health care areas, even though the firm doesn’t require her to do so. Her roster includes the Cleveland Orchestra and Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
“I think she gravitated toward working with nonprofits because she loves their mission — she loves doing things for humanity, for society, for community,” Richard says.
Her current charitable activities include board chair for Business Volunteers Unlimited, board member and executive committee member for Greater Cleveland Partnership, board member for Say Yes to Education and co-chair for the Commission on Economic Inclusion. She accomplishes it all by working 12-hour weekdays and one weekend day a week.
“I have a lot of energy,” she says. “Knock on wood; it hasn’t diminished too much over the course of this job.”