The Innovative, Collaborative Spirit of Bartlit Beck

A Bartlit Beck attorney participates in the Chicago Ideas Week Lab “Selecting a Jury for the Haymarket Trial”

Chicago Ideas Week partners aren’t just special for bringing new ideas to the Chicago community, many of them are finding revolutionary ways to bring their workforce into a new area of individual spirit joined with collaboration. “At Bartlit Beck, the ‘why’ is king,” says Wesley Morrissette, who’s been a Bartlit Beck Herman Palenchar & Scott associate for two years. “There is a laser focus on doing work that produces results—and not wasting time or energy on work that doesn’t matter. We don’t do things a certain way just because that’s the way it has always been done. If there’s a more efficient and effective way to get something done or to convey a story, that’s the way we do it.” It might not sound revolutionary at first, but Bartlit Beck’s team approach continues to upend traditional approaches to litigation and big law.

Founded in 1993, Bartlit Beck has long been known as an innovator in the legal industry, especially since 2002, when it announced it was doing away with billable hours almost entirely. The firm’s success is built on the philosophy that each member of their team should have responsibility for asking the “why?” that gets the best result for the client. That means that rather than everyone having a separate task to perform based on a hierarchy of tenure and status, with a certain number of hours to be put in, everyone is expected to look at the whole picture of a trial, determine how to get a positive outcome for a client, and work together to achieve it collaboratively. “Even as the most junior attorney on the team, I have always had a voice in our strategic decisions for a case. This approach enables me to carry out each task in the context of what we are trying to accomplish as a team—not just an assignment to complete,” says Morrissette. In other words, the feet always know what the head is doing, so they can help get it there better.

Breaking free of the hierarchy not only gives associates a personal stake in the case’s outcome, it works in reverse, better preparing partners who have taken responsibility for understanding the ins and outs of their case that at other firms, may be delegated to associates and support staff. It might not seem like a big deal that Bartlit Beck attorneys run their own PowerPoint presentations at trial, but it is emblematic of the fact that when clients hire the firm, they are getting highly experienced lawyers who know the nitty-gritty of every detail of their cases. The fact that Bartlit Beck’s internal processes are designed to advance multilateral collaboration also allows the firm to excel in a changing marketplace.

“One of the things we have seen clients begin to embrace is the idea of staffing cases using a ‘Virtual Law Firm’ approach,” says Mark Ferguson, one of Bartlit Beck’s founding partners. “By this, I mean clients are seeking to bring in players from multiple firms to form what they regard as all-star trial teams.” Because fully integrating teams with different cultures and structures requires a lot of deft handling, this can be daunting to firms who are just starting to wade into these new waters. But at Bartlit Beck, which has been working with other firms since its conception, it’s second nature.

Recently, the firm was instrumental in winning Hewlett-Packard more than $3 billion in a Santa Clara County (California) case against Oracle, all thanks to their collaborative approach. “What was typical about the case was that we were brought in specifically because of our trial capabilities, and our team had a major role in everything from how we presented the evidence and arguments to how the remote trial office was set up and run,” Ferguson explains. “What was not typical was that our role was entirely strategic—other lawyers from other firms handled all of the work in the courtroom itself.” It’s not often Ferguson is hired for a trial and not asked to be one of the lead lawyers in court, but because of Bartlit Beck’s expertise preparing for and running trials —doing whatever is needed to get the job done—he was happy to take the role that delivered the best result for the client. The result? One of the largest judgments in a contract case in California history, entered in favor of their client.

No doubt Bartlit Beck will continue to build on its reputation as one of the best trial firms in the country, due in no small part to this collaborative energy. “Good ideas can come from anyone in this kind of system, and it becomes second nature both to expect that kind of contribution and to feel free to offer it,” Ferguson says. Morrissette echoes that sentiment: “I think Bartlit Beck’s continued success rests on our firm continuing to focus on high-quality work and continuing to ask ourselves, ‘What is the best way to do our jobs and get results for our clients?’ These two things have been the foundation of Bartlit Beck’s culture and truly are what makes this firm great.” But when it comes to the client, the answer to that “Why?” question might be more straightforward. “Bartlit Beck was founded by attorneys who asked themselves, ‘Why do our clients hire us?’” Morrissette says. “The simple answer was ‘to win.’”


Jennifer Boudinot is a freelance writer and entrepreneur focused on the changing workplace, disruptive business practices and cocktails—yes, cocktails. She's also a book editor and a best-selling ghostwriter.

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