Seventeen years is an eternity in an age when law firms form, merge or break up so fast, you sometimes have to check the name on your coffee cup each morning to see who you are working for.
“We are acutely aware of that,” said Leslie Packer, a co-founder and the managing partner at Raleigh-based Ellis & Winters LLP. “We founded ourselves in 2000 by splitting off from other firms. We have bonds that were forged by starting our own law firm and being in the trenches together. We trust each other. We don’t have fights about compensation.
“While I’m the managing partner, I am not the boss,” she continued. “The only way you can manage a group of partners is by trying to build consensus. You can’t issue edicts, nor would I want to because I don’t think I have the only good ideas. It’s about motivating people, reminding them of things they have already committed to do, getting people to focus on the business side of the practice.”
Being the managing partner of a mid-size law firm with 37 attorneys and a staff of 29 is a far cry from the path Packer charted for herself when she graduated from Brown University with a degree in anthropology.
Packer was in pursuit of a career in psychology when a friend convinced her to enroll in law school. “My friend had just started law school and she was not enjoying it,” Packer said. “She thought I would enjoy it, though, and convinced me to go to class with her. She was right, I just loved it.” She went on to earn her Juris Doctor from UNC School of Law.
Packer said she found similarities between psychology and the law. “You quickly learn that you have to understand people to figure out how to navigate through lawsuits,” she said. “I liked thinking through the issues, working out problems, the logic of it.”
‘A Lottery Mentality’
Packer described Ellis & Winters as a boutique firm concentrated on commercial real estate and complex litigation, including product liability.
“Trials are the most exciting and fun things that we do as lawyers,” said Packer. “It’s the ultimate event having to think on your feet and react in real time to things that are unfolding in the courtroom. There are always surprises in any trial no matter how prepared you think you are. What you are getting ready for is changing as the other side is doing different things. You have to be kind of in a chess match mentality.
“I enjoy the teamwork while we prepare for a trial,” she continued. “It’s one of those times when it’s everyone’s highest priority, and people are willing to do anything and everything that needs to be done to prepare.”
Packer decries what she describes as the “lottery mentality” among some members of the public when it comes to product liability cases. “There is a sense that these big companies have endless amounts of money and so it’s not going to hurt them, which of course is not correct.”
“I think there can be litigation that can be stirred up by advertising that creates unnecessary fear and anxiety in consumers. When they may have a medical product implanted that is perfectly fine and causing them no problems and they start seeing a lot of advertising they become concerned when they don’t need to be.”
Teamwork is a word that peppers her discussions about the law firm. Teamwork is part of what attracted Packer to Special Olympics North Carolina. She has been involved with the organization since 2000 and is currently it’s board chair.
“For many Special Olympics athletes, it’s a chance for them to really socialize with their peers but also to form relationships with their coaches and volunteers. It’s great to see how participation in sports and teamwork leads to the development of all kinds of life skills and confidence that may lead them to believing they could apply for a job.”
Leslie Packer has won any number of awards and honors in the legal field, but the accomplishment she likes to talk about is having run in the Virginia Beach, Chicago and New York Marathons. New York was her first marathon and her favorite.
“It was just so exciting. At the start of the race, you have all of the city workers like firemen and sanitation workers cheering you on. You go through all of the five boroughs. People are outside their houses and churches cheering. It was so thrilling. My goal in that one was just to finish, which I did.”
Packer is married to Tom Packer, the managing office partner at the Raleigh office of Gordon & Rees. They have been married for five years. Between them they have five children from previous marriages.
“Now, said Packer, “the baby in the family is Zoe, a 3-year-old foxhound Jack Russell from an animal rescue group.”
Changes in the Marketplace
The Triangle is one of the fastest growing regions in the nation. With that growth is coming more competition in the legal field. Gordon & Rees is but one of among many national and international firms that have opened offices in the region.
“The biggest challenges we see are not from other firms but from changes in the market place,” said Packer. “Clients are insisting on alternative fee arrangements. Clients are being more cost conscious and bringing work in-house and using fewer law firms. There’s been a lot of talk about artificial intelligence. In 10 years, will clients be able to get legal research done by computers and not need law firms for some of the things they do now?
“My role is more focused on strategic thinking, looking at the future and how we’re positioned,” she continued.
“Teamwork is highly valued because teamwork is the way we accomplish our client’s goals. If we have internal competition or people are not pulling in the same direction we’re not going to be delivering what our clients need,” said Packer.
“The goal is to impart the bonds of loyalty, teamwork and the culture to the newer generation of partners.”