SBJ/April 30-May 6, 2012/People and Pop Culture

Joe Leccese, chairman, Proskauer



Running a law firm is not what motivates me. The sports deal world is what motivates me.

It is very different being the chairman. I do far more public speaking. I do more traveling. I spend more time on administration.

Leccese is the youngest elected chairman in Proskauer’s history, dating to 1875. He was 49 when selected for the post in October 2010.
Photo by: TONY FLOREZ PHOTOGRAPHY
The sports industry is at the cutting edge of most of the things I find interesting: media, social media, public facilities, the entertainment of people, the internationalization of sports.

Brazil is an amazingly beautiful place. São Paulo, it’s like Shanghai. There are just cranes everywhere.

It’s an intellectual feast to be involved in sports. Magic Johnson with HIV. Free-speech issues contested about athletes and teams. Technology and innovations.

The first time I was anybody’s boss I was 20 years old. I became the head of the campus bar at Georgetown University. The people I was “managing” were my peers.

A professional service firm is very different from a corporate structure. You need to achieve strategic goals by inspiring people and persuading people.

It’s much more effective to communicate in groups. It’s very easy in a one-on-one conversation to take an extreme position. In a group, people can hear other people’s points of view, come to some accommodation, and that’s incredibly important.

I break the partners into nine groups. Every quarter I have a dinner with each of those nine groups. We spend anywhere from 60 to 90 minutes on a topic.

Any business that precedes along the path where they decide to do for the next five years exactly what they’ve done for the past five years is doomed to colossal failure.

The notion of the one-size-fits-all interview probably leads to 90 percent bad interviews. You have to look at somebody’s background and CV and say, What is it about this person that we can discuss that gives me a better sense of that person?

We have our best success with [hiring] what one might call the renaissance man or renaissance woman. That’s something that used to be very valued in academic admissions but is a little bit less valued. They look for the best mathematician or the best soccer player. As a collective those classes are well-rounded but the individuals may not be.

Work ethic is one of the hardest things to predict. Someone who had a very high level of achievement in university or law school presumably had to apply himself with some measure of intensity. You can look at their personal interests: someone who did that while holding a job, being a competitive athlete, discharging family responsibilities.

We’re trying to put more emphasis on language skills. It’s exceedingly important. Languages like Mandarin, Portuguese, have taken on an importance in the business world that they didn’t have a decade ago.

The postwar era of relatively steady growth in American business generally and in professional service firms in particular is over. Volatility is the new normal.

It used to be that if there was a problem, it took a while for that problem to work its way through the system. When there is a problem now, activity stops almost immediately. If there’s a debt crisis, within a day or two, clients are saying let’s slow down the deal, let’s renegotiate price, let’s put it on hold. It’s instantaneous.

You don’t sense unqualified optimism anywhere. People sense opportunities, but it’s always with a comma and a caveat.

The presidential election process has contributed to this apprehension you’re seeing. When I sit in CEO-type meetings, people are terrified about the budget deficit. Because it’s an American election season, people know it’s not going to get addressed for at least one more election season.

Nothing can induce self-loathing more than a round of golf. But it’s the experience. You’re out walking with a bunch of your pals for four hours and if you don’t take the game terribly seriously you can actually enjoy it even when you make an ass of yourself.

I’m still a sports fan. I love hearing about what’s going on: Who they’re going to draft. Who’s really developing as a player. What the offense or defense strategy will be.

In dollars, the NFL has the most potential for growth. In percentage, it’s probably Major League Soccer.

One of the most profound changes in the next three years will be the changing composition of ownership of the major U.S. professional sports leagues. We have [Mikhail] Prokhorov, but I expect other high-net-worth individuals from other parts of the world, including China, Russia, the Middle East, will want to own NBA teams.

Professionally, the hardest thing to learn is to accept the fact that you made a mistake and move on. If you get caught in that second-guessing, then you won’t make the good move the next time around. All of us are perfectionists.

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