Atlanta And The Southeast - Law Firms From 40 Lawyers To 800: King & Spalding's Evolution Mirrors That Of Atlanta

Tuesday, February 1, 2005 - 01:00

The Editor interviews Walter W. Driver, Jr., Chairman, King & Spalding LLP.

Editor: Mr. Driver, would you tell our readers something about your professional background?

Driver: I joined King & Spalding when I graduated from law school in 1970. I started doing work for the firm's large bank client, and that led to a considerable amount of work in the Southeast on behalf of Morgan Guaranty. I represented Banca Nazionale Del Lavoro in what was then the largest bank fraud case in the world, involving a rogue operation with off-book finances, extending about four billion dollars to the government of Iraq. What with CIA inquiries, Congressional hearings, and the like, it was a very exciting time.

Editor: Since you joined the firm in 1970, King & Spalding has experienced extraordinary growth. For starters, can you tell us about some of the factors - and some of the individuals - that are behind that growth?

Driver: When I joined the firm in 1970, we had fewer than 40 lawyers. We now have over 800, and we have never had a significant merger. The growth has been organic, from within, or the result of people joining us one or two at a time. It has been driven by a variety of things. In the early period Atlanta was a boom town, and our growth paralleled that of the city. We also were fortunate in bringing into the firm more than our share of ambitious and talented young lawyers who are necessary to any firm's success. In the late 1970s Griffin Bell came back to the firm from the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, and he then rejoined following his service as Attorney General during the Carter administration. He raised the profile of the firm from regional to the national level, and he stimulated a great deal of strategic thinking on the part of his partners. He has had the most catalytic effect on the firm during my time here.

Editor: The firm has also grown beyond Atlanta and the Southeast. Please tell us about the decisions that went into opening these other offices.

Driver: Our first office outside Atlanta was Washington. We initially decided not to open an office in Washington when Judge Bell was the Attorney General because we thought it was inappropriate. We thought it might look as if we were trading on his influence. I am not sure that any firm would have that view today, but it was certainly our principled view at the time. Then Coca-Cola, which has always been one of our major clients, asked us to do their food and drug work in Washington. In effect, they promised to underwrite the cost of the office. They also indicated that they would be disappointed if we did not open a DC office. It was an offer we could not refuse. We opened the office, and today, after 25 years, it has about 120 lawyers.

The next office we opened was in New York. This was a strategic decision. We knew we had to have a platform in New York if we were to be able to represent our clients in a national, and increasingly international, arena. That office has approximately 180 lawyers, and we have just committed for additional space that will give us room for 290.

The next office we opened was in Houston, again at the request of a major client, Texaco. This was in 1995, and today that office is the largest Houston office of any non-Texas firm and very successful.

The office in London was opened two years ago. We believed that it was necessary for us to have a presence there in order to provide a full range of services to the growing group of clients carrying on their activities in the global arena.

Editor: You have spent your career in Atlanta. How has the city evolved over this time?

Driver: Shortly before I arrived, the firm handled financing for what was then the largest shopping center development in the Southeast. No bank in the entire region could make the $10 million loan because it exceeded their legal lending limit. New York was the source of funding. Today Atlanta is the third highest ranking headquarters city for Fortune 100 companies. Not only has it become a financial hub, it is a business destination with an international reputation. The firm has grown with the city and, perhaps, a little ahead of the city. As far back as the late 1960s we were hiring people who had no ties to Atlanta. This made for an infusion of completely new talent which, I think, helped to accelerate the development of the city. I had never been to Atlanta before accepting a job at King & Spalding, and that was not uncommon.

Editor: King & Spalding is known for its commitment to the development of Atlanta through its work with a variety of civic, arts and philanthropic organizations. What is the origin of this commitment?

Driver: I believe that it goes back to Hugh Spalding, Sr., who was a leading Catholic layman and instrumental in organizing what is now the Children's Health Center of Atlanta. He involved the firm in all kinds of civic and community initiatives. Judge Bell has always been an outspoken advocate of having legal representation, and good representation, available to everyone, and this has had a profound influence on the firm and its values. This commitment to public service is known to Atlanta generally, which means that our people tend to be asked to volunteer in meaningful ways. We, of course, encourage this.

Editor: Would you tell us about the firm's connections with the United Way of Atlanta?

Driver: We have had a long participation with the United Way, and several of our people have served on the organization's governing board. I chaired their legal and professional services campaign a few years ago. We are also very proud of the individual contributions that our partners and staff have made to the United Way, nearly a million dollars, which makes us the leading law firm contributor in the city.

Editor: And the firm's pro bono undertakings?

Driver: We have a very strong pro bono program. In fact, we had a pro bono immigration case that was recently argued successfully before the U.S. Supreme Court in December We also successfully represented a group of amici curiae supporting a petition for certiorari before the Supreme Court on the question of whether a foreign national must be notified of his right to consular assistance under the Vienna Convention. Later this year we will argue a habeas corpus case before the Supreme Court. I think it is very unusual, if not unprecedented, for a single firm to be engaged in three pro bono litigation matters at this level at the same time.

The Consumer Advocacy Project is one that we carry on in partnership with the Atlanta Legal Aid Society. We sponsor a fellowship and pay for the hiring of a fellow in our name.

Our New York office has been engaged in working on the Commercial Code of Afghanistan with the American Bar Association and the Center for International Management Education.

We are also contesting the historic practice in Georgia of charging prisoners for their room and board. We believe that if you are in prison that is your payment to society, and that you are not required to pay for it as well.

The range of activity is considerable, from highly visible - and sometimes controversial - matters to simply helping people in need. The concept of pro bono service is a part of our value system.

Editor: This kind of undertaking goes to the heart of a firm's culture. Would you tell us about the connection between community service and pro bono activities and firm morale?

Driver: We have long believed that to succeed at King & Spalding you really need to have four attributes: the intellectual ability to practice law at the highest level; a commitment to doing it well; an appreciation of people and the relationships among people because it is those relationships which provide most of the rewards in our profession; and an appreciation and real sense of pleasure from being part of a community. That community may be the firm or a group of people within the firm with whom you work, or it may be the surrounding community - which you serve in your pro bono or civic endeavors. We have some 200 lawyers in the firm who serve on the governing board of a civic or charitable organization of one kind or another. I find this an astonishing statistic because they are providing this service on their own initiative.

Editor: The firm is also known for its commitment to diversity. Would you tell us about the work of the diversity committee?

Driver: We were recently ranked by The American Lawyer as having the fourth largest number of minority lawyers of any large firm in the country. Between 25 and 30 percent of our practice group leaders are either women or minority lawyers, which is something on which I focussed three years ago. We have a variety of programs that are meant to enhance the firm's diversity and sense of inclusion, and we have a part-time coordinating partner who is charged with seeing that such programs work.

Editor: How do your clients react to this kind of undertaking?

Driver: Our clients expect King & Spalding to be leaders in the profession in every respect. That includes expertise and skill, a knowledge of the law, good connections, commitment to the community and ensuring that our own makeup mirrors that of the community and of the firm's clients.

Editor: King & Spalding has been identified with Atlanta for over a century. The firm has gone from being an Atlanta firm to a regional firm and then on to national status. Now it is beginning to play a role in the global arena. How does this evolution affect the firm's connections with Atlanta?

Driver: King & Spalding is one of a number of Atlanta enterprises that have successfully undergone such a process. The Coca-Cola Company, UPS and Home Depot all come to mind. We have all grown as the city has grown. I believe that the entire city takes a certain pride in the success of these enterprises, which means that we have managed to keep our feet on the ground. Speaking for King & Spalding, Atlanta is, and remains, home.

Editor: What about the future? Where do you see King & Spalding in, say, five years?

Driver: I see King & Spalding as one of a small group of national law firms which have managed to build a national presence and a reputation for quality of a very high order notwithstanding the lack of a New York original base. We will continue to attract clients who require a deep bench and service at the very highest level.

Please email the interviewee at wdriver@kslaw.com with questions about this interview.