Power Players: The Business Side Of Law

A native of Mooresville, N.C., Steve Lewis was in high school when family friends, two accountants and one attorney, piqued his interest in the professions. He decided he wanted to be a tax lawyer.

“I’m probably the only kid in America who ever thought that in high school,” he says. Lewis knew he didn’t want to litigate, and his friends convinced him that tax law was the best way to marry accounting and law. It was a short marriage; Lewis eventually opted to focus on mergers and acquisitions over tax law. But his decision to enter the legal profession was a wise one.

In January, Lewis, 44, became managing partner of Troutman Sanders, an Atlanta-based law firm with more than 650 attorneys and 16 offices worldwide.

He is only the third person in the firm’s history to hold that position, following in the footsteps of former Georgia Governor Carl Sanders and Robert Webb.

He doesn’t take such organizational stability for granted. “The benefit of stepping into this job after Gov. Sanders was in it for 25 years and Bob was in it for 18 years is that we’re starting in a pretty good place,” he says. “It’s not like a revolution is occurring.”

Lewis earned his undergraduate and law degrees from the University of North Carolina. He joined Troutman Sanders in 1991.

“I had the benefit of coming along at a good time in the economy, the early 1990s after the recession, and got to work on a lot of things,” he says. “I loved the practice but really loved the client involvement and strategy side of helping the clients.”

Lewis was able to integrate his accounting and finance background into discussions with his clients, finding it as easy to speak to chief financial officers and chief executive officers as it was to speak with the client’s general counsel.

“I was able to get involved with them on the strategic and operational decisions as well as the legal ones,” he says. “I tell people all the time, I feel very fortunate to have found a job I love and that [working with clients] was probably what I loved most about it.”

Lewis became a partner in 1998, representing an array of clients including Cousins Properties; PRGX, a business analytics and information services firm; FedEx; the LexisNexis Group; and Trend Publica-tions, the parent company of Georgia Trend.

As his career progressed, Lewis accepted more managerial responsibility, first as Mergers and Acquisitions practice group leader and, in 2006, as head of the firm’s Corporate Section, managing 150 lawyers in the seven different corporate practice areas. Lewis considers it excellent on-the-job training as he now assumes a similar role on a firm-wide scale, with much more responsibility and higher visibility.

A seasoned manager, Lewis doesn’t tout flashy new business concepts. “I believe in surrounding yourself with good, talented people and letting them do their jobs,” he says. “I have a high standard, expect great things from people and give them room to get things done, then praise and reward them when they do.”

And when they don’t, Lewis says he relies on advice from a fellow partner at Troutman Sanders. “Bob Grout, former head of our corporate practice, helped me tremendously through the years,” says Lewis. “He told me if you need to have a difficult conversation, be direct, be polite and respectful, but deal with it head on. People will respect you for that.”

Maintaining and growing the business is at the top of Lewis’s agenda, especially in light of new business realities. “We spend a lot of time watching and planning based on events,” he says.

“What the profession is going to look like after the fact is still kind of working itself out. I don’t think anyone thinks it’s going back to business as it was in 2005 or 2006 in terms of the way law firms transact business. As the economy continues to improve, there are a lot of people out there, us included, trying to figure out the best way to serve our clients going forward.”

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