As the promise of 2021 looms on the horizon, most people are anxious to close the books on what is likely the most unsettling year — from the pandemic to politics to PPP loans — we will ever experience. Strong leadership has never been more essential than it is today. To share their best leadership practices, Az Business magazine sat down with Arizona business leaders to watch in 2021, including John C. Norling, managing attorney at Jennings, Strouss & Salmon.
In addition to serving on the firm’s management committee, John Norling maintains a full-time practice focused on advising clients on all aspects of their operations, including commercial transactions, real estate, business organizations, corporate law, mergers and acquisitions, federal and administrative compliance, business contract negotiations, and advertising law.
Here is the full transcript of the interview with John C. Norling
Az Business: What’s been the impact of COVID on your law firm?
John Norling: Well, I think COVID’s had a dramatic impact on, not of our firm, but obviously the community as a whole. Back in March when everything hit the fan, so to speak, we strongly encouraged everybody to go home. We did not shut down our firm like some did we.
Since then, we’ve had probably 20 percent or 30 percent of our firm in the office working purely on a voluntary basis. Everybody else, maybe 70, 80 percent have been working remotely.
It took some getting used to at the beginning, but I’ve got to hand it to our people, they banded together. They’ve kept their productivity going, made sure our clients are taken care of. So strangely enough, what we feared would be a huge impact for the firm has actually been some pretty good times for the firm. From a productivity standpoint and the ability to make sure our clients are satisfied, we’ve been able to grow. We’ve added another four or five lawyers during this period of time. Just supply and demand. So strangely enough, it’s been an oddly decent time.
Az Business: How were you able to motivate your team when you have 80 percent of them not in the office with you?
John Norling: That’s a challenge. It’s a challenge, but I think we’re blessed at Jennings Strouss because we’ve got a tremendous group of people, just phenomenally good character, integrity level people, and they’ve done a great job pulling together. It’s like any team that you’re trying to motivate, you show them that number one, the most important thing to us as management is the health and wellbeing of our firm, of our individuals. We refer to ourselves as a family. We really believe we are. So we want to make sure we take care of our family.
The second, obviously, is to make sure our clients are taken care of because they’re part of the extended family as well. So our people have really stepped up and we stay in constant contact with them. We communicate everything and try to tell them what’s going on, why it’s going on, explaining the rationale behind the decisions that we’re making. They’ve really rallied behind the cause and done a great job.
Az Business: Most companies would aspire to do what you’ve done. How were you able to grow the firm during this time with all the challenges in front of you?
John Norling: Well, we were presented with a couple of opportunities, a couple of lawyers that had been referred to us or sent their information into us. We’ve had a need for a while for some new attorneys, and a couple of them have been summer associates in our firms. We brought in two of those and then two or three, others were just we needed to deepen our bench. We needed to strengthen our team in some areas. By happenstance referrals from in-house counsel and clients and referrals from other lawyers, some people they knew that were looking to relocate to the Valley or change firms. They just fit the mold we look for and we brought them on board. It’s been a great success.
Az Business: If somebody asks you to describe your leadership style or your leadership strengths, what would you say?
John Norling: That’s a tough one. I’m very team oriented. My background was athletics and college athletics, so I always want to put the team first. I view leadership as a surface position. I take myself out of it and try to make decisions for the best interest of the firm or the team. Other than that, it sounds trite, but you do what’s right. You mƒake the right decision. You look at people, you hold them accountable. You try not to micromanage. You get good people, put in a place and make the right decisions and coach them up when you can.
Az Business: Can you talk a little bit about your sports background and how it’s impacted your career?
John Norling: I was an offensive lineman in college at Wichita State University. For those of you that know about football, offensive lineman are the, I like calling them the unsung heroes. You only hear our name if we’re injured or we get called for a penalty. But we’re the ones that are out there working to try and make everybody else look better.
As a leader, that’s the kind of position, the kind of mindset that you want to have, is my job is to make every other lawyer in this firm, in Jennings Strouss look good, be able to practice law without having to worry about anything else really. It’s taking everything off their plate to enable them to do what they enjoy and what they’re very good at.
But I just think that mentality, the team mentality that together we’re going to do better than we can individually. That’s what I was where I was raised in. It’s what I was trained in and what I’m used to. So I’m trying to continue that on and take those analogies and that feeling into the business world, so to speak.
Az Business: So as managing partner of the firm, can you talk a little bit about how much is spent managing and how much is practicing law?
John Norling: I still maintain full practice. I have a good sized practice that I’ve been reluctant to give up to manage the firm, but of course I have a very understanding wife who understands that I’m basically holding two full time jobs now. But I’m kind of, I guess, in some ways a workaholic. This is what I do and I want to succeed in everything. I view everything as sort of a competition.
The firm, obviously when you’re running a firm our size with four different offices, it takes a lot of time, just the logistics of leases coming up and recruiting and vendor contracts, it takes an awful lot of work to do that for us. Fortunately I’ve got a very strong administrative team. Our chief operating officer, John Skewes is absolutely phenomenal. I’ve known him for many years and had the pleasure of working with him for many years and he’s just done a great job and makes my job easier. It allows me to be able to maintain my practice too.
A lot of my clients are clients that I’ve worked with for close to 30 years in the business. So I’ve got a couple of strong niches and some very unique industries that help maintain that because I’m one of the few people around that really understands the industries to the extent that I do.
Az Business: Do you see any particular practice areas that you see growth potential in the next year or two?
John Norling: I think we’re in for a rebounding success. Most firms I’ve talked to have been very blessed to maintain their productivity and stayed busy. But I think once we get through this, whatever this is, whatever the new normal is, I think you’re going to see business rebound. Obviously, a lot of that depends on the election, but I think you’re going to see there’s a lot of money on the sidelines and it’s looking to come into it and that’s going to drive the corporate real estate practice areas, construction. I think obviously once those start taking off, then the litigation kicks in when the disputes start growing out of the business transactions.
The sad part of the situation that we’ve gone through is you’re going to see increases in family law. The divorce rate is going to increase because of the stress that people were under during this era.
But overall, I think it’s going to be a good period of time for law firms. It’s going to be competitive. It’s going to be all the other challenges. But I think a lot of our clients are sitting on the sidelines right now and waiting to get some resolution to some of these issues and then they’re going to dive and want to continue pursuing where they were.
Az Business: How do you see Arizona’s economy coming back once COVID’s done?
John Norling: I think Arizona’s economy is going to rebound strong, I believe. If you just count the number of cranes that are around downtown right now, one of my partners was saying about 18 cranes down there on different projects. I know there are projects planned that will be coming forward that may not have broken ground yet.
But I think with the troubles in other parts of the country we’re seeing more and more influxes of people moving here from back East and Northwest, where have you, and that’s just going to feed the business environment here. The growth here is always as a growth begets growth and we’re going to see more of that.
Az Business: What’s your outlook for the legal industry in 2021 and beyond?
John Norling: I think it’s still going to be a little tenuous in 2021. I don’t think we’re going to get through this pandemic situation. I don’t think December 31 is going to come and then all of a sudden we’ll be back to normal. I think it’s going to be a very tenuous time. We’re going to have to be careful just like every other business and watch what happens and try to be nimble and react, be proactive.
But I think it’s going to start out, whether you hear me economists talk about V-recovery, a U-recovery or a flat recovery I think it’s going to be between. I don’t think we’re having flat recovery. I think it’s going to be more of a gentle slope, about 45-degree angle, but I think it’s going to be good.