Steven Ryan: Leading Boldly in a Time of Change

Steven Ryan
2024 Feature Nominations

In a time marked by dynamic changes taking place in business, technology and society, one law firm is not only embracing the future, but proactively defining it. For more than 135 years, Briggs and Morgan, Professional Association, has evolved to serve the needs of the Minnesota business community, and today, that legacy continues under the leadership of President and Managing Partner, Steven Ryan.

Ryan came to his position in August 2018 with nearly 25 years of service to the firm as a practice group leader and member of the board and executive committee. A noted practitioner in the areas of banking and finance; capital markets; and real estate, Ryan brings an advanced understanding of business that informs his leadership of the firm. However, his approach to the business of law transcends a focus on just client acquisition and balance sheets. He says he and his team are committed to asking the important questions about where they and the industry are headed, so they can build a sustainable firm that responds nimbly and meets the needs of clients today and long into the future.

“I’ve always had an intense interest in the business of law as distinct from the practice of law,” he said. “I feel very privileged to have the chance to serve as president and managing partner. It’s humbling to step in where a lot of people have contributed to the firm’s reputation and success and keep propelling that momentum forward. For me, this is very much a team effort. I am surrounded by incredibly talented leaders who work alongside me in a collaborative way to discuss what this firm needs to look like in the future to meet our clients’ needs.”

Firm COO, Ann Rainhart, described Ryan as an outstanding lawyer and business person who is also a visionary and thoughtful leader. She recalled her first meeting with Ryan, which occurred when she interviewed at the firm four years ago. “He was so excited talking about change and what needed to happen at the firm, that he bounced out of his chair and started writing on the white board. It was a feeling of, ‘You have ideas, and I have ideas. Let’s create them together.’ That energy is what we, as a leadership team, are trying to create and harness in other people. In order for us to serve the needs of clients, our internal firm culture must provide the means for people to do their best work, purposefully, on a journey of discussion, discovery and support.”


Ryan speaks with enthusiasm about the purpose of the firm as an enterprise. “We want to be profitable, but that’s not our reason for being. We are striving to be outward facing in our strategy while cultivating an environment internally for people to thrive. What we’re really here for is to help others reach their potential.”

At Briggs, there is no compartmentalizing. The same values that apply to serving clients and cultivating professionals also apply to making Minnesota communities safe, inclusive and prosperous places to live. Briggs lawyers and professionals have long engaged in public service, public office, the judiciary and pro bono work.

Briggs primarily serves upper middle-market legal needs, and according to Ryan, that requires professionals with significant expertise. “Our clients are not only sophisticated and expect sound legal advice, but need us to calibrate that advice to the business environment they operate in. That means we need to do more than just lawyer matters; we need to deliver results-oriented business solutions. We need to reinvigorate our curiosity and drive to understand what it is they really want us to deliver. Our clients’ needs are changing constantly, and the environments they operate in are also evolving. Doing our job better than anyone else means we need to have a deep cultural understanding of our individual clients and their needs. Through continual feedback from our clients, we are actively changing the way we value the services we provide, and are bringing professionals other than lawyers into the discussion.”

Internally, that means cultivating an environment where everyone is moving together in the direction of client goals. Ryan said he and the firm’s leadership have given careful thought to how its lawyers and professionals spend their time, and as a result, have restructured the firm’s governance; eliminated nearly half of the firm’s internally facing committees; and focused on retention and growth of talent in areas where there is client demand. “We want to cultivate a culture that is both responsive and responsible where our clients’ needs are concerned.”

Briggs also encourages all professionals to recommit to participating in civic, charitable and social institutions. “We want our people to be on boards and especially on board committees, where the real work gets done. From a staff standpoint, we have programs that provide paid time off to participate in community projects.”


A recent client success illustrates how Briggs is delivering solutions for value. Ryan explained, “We have a significant banking and finance practice. Several years ago, we began a conversation about how to differentiate the service we provide in that space from others. We determined that we needed to gather more information internally about how we were delivering service and externally about how our products and services were perceived by our clients.”

Briggs created its own task codes for senior debt finance and built a database to track where professionals were spending their time. It also interviewed clients about what the firm was doing well and not doing well.

“In the end, we took the internal data and thinking combined with the external feedback and created a new tool for budgeting these matters and tracking work against a budget. We created something clients didn’t even know they wanted. We got ahead of their need and provided more value to our cost in ways we didn’t know were possible. A client told us, ‘No one else brought this solution to us, and no one communicates about the work being done the way you’re doing it.’ Just being a really good lawyer is the minimum of what is expected. We will do that no matter what. But now we are challenged with delivering legal services in ways that are business-oriented, giving solutions for value. Value isn’t the lowest price; it is the most benefit for all cost inputs.”


Ryan believes that helping people succeed does not come from a top-down approach. Rather, it comes from an inclusive and continually evolving one.

At this year’s annual meeting, Briggs invited all of its roughly 300 personnel to the top floor of the IDS Center for a new kind of discussion. “In the past, we’d usually have the managing partner talking about their perspectives on the firm market and to celebrate our past successes,” Ryan said. “We changed the format to bring a panel that was a cross-section of attorneys and operations professionals, and asked them to share their views on the same strategic and business questions leadership has been grappling with. It helped to hear from people across the spectrum about the challenges and opportunities that exist and their ideas for change. This was the start of something we’re going to continue here. We want to be a team of professionals who collaborate and hear different perspectives, and are not just looking for success on our own.”

He continued, “It all goes back to why this firm exists and the purpose of our business. We want to continue focusing on the success of our clients, people and community. As professionals, we are responding to all these constituencies and engaging in all dimensions of the practice. I think the result is that we are a more vibrant and robust law firm, positioned in the market as people who are making the most of their talents and capacities to keep fulfilling our purpose in new and inventive ways.”


Rainhart came to her operations post through unconventional means as a former human resources and talent officer inside large firms, and she brings a people- first interpretation to her role. She is known as a change agent in the legal profession, a role that isn’t always easy. “We’re not making a product here,” she said. “We’re not running an assembly line, and we’re not a store. We are our people. We start with human beings and what motivates them, and we use that understanding to help our leadership understand how to create the right internal dynamic so we can create the results our clients need.”

She continued, “Steve has outstanding instincts. It’s fun to work with somebody who has new ideas in a law firm leader role. Our goal is to create an outstanding client experience by creating an outstanding internal firm experience for our people. In order to do that, we have to be bold and try new things. We have to experiment, even if things don’t go perfectly the first time. To do that, leadership has to be willing to listen to other people and take direction and feedback from our colleagues. Our job is to come in every day and make the firm as strong as possible going forward, based on what our market needs now and in the future, not to maintain what we’ve had. Change is not in front of us anymore; we are stepping into it.”

H.K. Wilson

H.K. Wilson is a contributing writer for Attorney at Law Magazine. She has been writing features for the publication for more than four years.

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