Innovation in Big Law and How Team-building and Collaboration Translate to Client Success

Darren Gardner, a pioneer in the area of international employment law and the head of King & Spalding’s Global Human Capital and Compliance Practice, returns to IMS Insights Podcast to share more of his experiences. Darren talks the importance of good mentoring, what makes the Global Human Capital and Compliance Practice such a strong team, and his advice for recent law school graduates looking to break into the field.

Teresa Barber: I want to pivot and talk a little bit, too, about how you got here. You have definitely led a decorated career. I’m curious to know what drew you, in the first place, to the legal profession. What made you say, “This is what I want to do. Here’s who I want to work with and serve.” Where did that light bulb first go off for you?

Darren Gardner: It took a little while. I would like to think that I’m somewhat entrepreneurial. My goal has always been to be able to get out of bed every day and really enjoy what I do. Given the way that I think and the expectations that I have of myself, I really need to have something that’s challenging, and ultimately that means I don’t have to do the same thing every day.

Darren Gardner: At the same time, I think one of the measures of successful partners at law firms is their ability to differentiate themselves. I also didn’t want to do the same thing as everybody else, and I typically have led my life that way. In terms of a decorated career – look, I have been very fortunate to work with people, some of them for a really long time, who are exceptionally talented.

Darren Gardner: And certainly, from my perspective – and I think in reality – anything we do, we’ve always done as a team. I think one of the reasons that we’ve had the success we have is the clients know that. They know that this isn’t one guy trying to cobble (something) together and hope that it works, but there’s a talent around this that have worked together for a long time, who know how to operate as a team, and who are really focused on delivering value for clients.

Darren Gardner: If asked, I would say that’s both the pleasure in what I do, and I think the fundamental reason for the success. It’s at a team, not a personal, level.

Teresa Barber: That’s a great answer. I want to ask you a little bit too about mentoring. We were talking about corporate culture a few minutes ago, but I want to turn it inward and talk to you about what mentoring means to you. I’m also interested to hear if you’ve had any mentors throughout your career who’ve really been helpful (in) guiding you along the way.

Darren Gardner: I’ll start with the second part about mentors. Look, I’m originally from Australia. I moved to New York twenty years ago, and I started a practice area that didn’t exist. My approach has always been to try and make sensible decisions within the parameters of what the goals are. The person that I’ve always relied on to do that’s been my father. He’ll always give me a very practical direction.

Darren Gardner: He’ll also remind me to make sure that my ambition and my ability match up properly, and that the way that I approach it is well thought through. Again, it probably sounds trite, but both of my parents have, from the time I was little,, both encouraged, supported, and been honest with what it is, with their feedback on what I’ve tried to do. That has really been both the compass and the barometer for me.

Darren Gardner: In terms of my approach, look, I’m very much a “freedom with a framework” kind of person. I’m very careful to make sure that everybody has the opportunity to grow and develop, because the goal is that everybody is as successful as they can be. In doing that, I also think – having been thrown in the deep end a few times myself – (that) having a safety net and having some structure and a framework that doesn’t set you up for failure and that really facilitates success is important.

Darren Gardner: I’ve always operated on the basis that providing opportunity and being able to support without interference is the best way to mentor anybody. I talked about the team earlier. Now, there are a couple of partners where they’ve worked with me for a very long time – one for more than twenty years, from being a first-year graduate.

Teresa Barber: Wow.

Darren Gardner: I can tell you, the proudest moment of my career was when they were made partner. From a team perspective, and from a personal and professional point of view, I don’t think there’s anything better than that. That success makes me feel better about anything that we’ve ever done.

Teresa Barber: That’s great, Darren. That’s a great perspective too. I want to ask you a little bit about new graduates – law school graduates. It has been a very interesting year for folks coming out of law school. Do you have any special advice that you would give new graduates, (or) new attorneys hoping to build their career in this very interesting moment that we’re in?

Darren Gardner: Look, I’m just glad I’m not a graduate now. I look at the folks that we interview, (and) the degree of talent – just both the intellect, their training, their credentials, and the clear ability – it’s a very tough and competitive environment. I think that’s even more complicated as a consequence of the pandemic. What I say when I’m asked in those interviews, my feedback is always, “Be patient and be very deliberate with what you do, and know, and understand what it is that you’re trying to do.”

Darren Gardner: Letting your goals and trying to achieve them can be different, so be yourself. I think the days of showing up as a first-year hanging around and billing hours until you’re a tenth year, then hoping that you’ll meet some new clients and maybe you’ll make partner, they’re long gone. I think clients realize, (both) more formally with the diversity and inclusion focus, but (also) informally, that there’s a huge value in diverse perspectives.

Darren Gardner: I think there’s a significant opportunity for folks that take an approach and have a view that might be different to what they’re being told. To me, if you’re patient, if you’re diligent, and if you’re different, then that’s going to give you the best chance of being successful.

Teresa Barber: That’s great advice, Darren.

Teresa Barber: Darren, it’s been wonderful having you on as a guest today. I’ve really enjoyed the conversation and hope you’ll come back and share when there’s some other stuff going on you’d like to talk about.

Darren Gardner: No, thanks for having me. It’s been a pleasure and I really enjoyed it.

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