You Can’t Escape the Law

Leslie Rohrbacker transitioned from her legal career to HR, only to return to the law as chief human resources officer at one of the largest law firms in the world

Specializing in immigration services for corporate and individual clients, Fragomen Worldwide is one of the largest law firms in the world, with 3,500 employees and nearly fifty offices in twenty countries. That presents unique challenges for its chief human resources officer, Leslie Rohrbacker. Luckily for Fragomen, she is an unusual chief human resources officer.

Rohrbacker spent the first eleven years of her career as a successful litigator, but she was dissatisfied with the lack of leadership training and professional development at most firms. Interestingly, after moving to an in-house position with The Medicines Company, a global pharmaceutical company, the CEO asked if she would be interested in transitioning to HR. Rohrbacker mulled over the proposition while traveling overseas for the company.

“I was struck by how everyone shared a passion for what they were doing to make the company successful, even in remote locations,” she recalls. “I felt energized by the possibility of being responsible for such a diverse group of employees and focusing on unifying them as one organizational culture.”

When Rohrbacker came to Fragomen four years ago, being an attorney gave her instant credibility and insight into how attorneys think. She describes them as being highly analytical and says they systematically assess information to identify strengths and weaknesses. While that mind-set is very helpful in prioritizing and presenting information, Rohrbacker herself had to learn to let go of a litigator’s competitiveness and desire to win. She learned to build consensus by “helping people onto the bus, not pushing them on.”

“Even if you’re right on the merits, you can lose by winning, especially if you don’t bring people around to your position and buy in as early as possible,” she explains. “Instead of feeling like settling or losing, consensus should feel like everyone came to the table and shared their priorities and interests to create a positive final product.”

With some of the world’s largest and most successful companies as clients, Fragomen faces the unique challenge of having its clients expect an extraordinarily high level of service. In fact, service level agreements often require that contact be made with individual client employees or their HR representatives within twenty-four hours to initiate a case. Attorneys and paraprofessionals must also know what approach to take and the information needed to begin processing immediately upon contact. And that applies to hundreds of thousands of cases annually.

Even with that intense pressure to perform, the HR department has been highly successful at aligning what Rohrbacker calls the employees’ “line of sight” with the firm’s mission, core values, and strategic objectives. Fragomen’s offices may span many borders and cultures, but a 2015 employee survey indicated that alignment was one of the highest scoring areas.

“People come in with different experiences and backgrounds, but if your mission and core values are clear enough, you can absolutely have everyone facing the same direction, Rohrbacker says. Our leadership and frontline managers have done a great job of communicating that fastidious client service is at the core of what we do.”

In addition to its widespread geographic and physical presence, Fragomen also boasts an extraordinarily diverse workforce. It is routinely ranked as the first or second global firm for the diversity of its partnership. Its executive committee, for example, is one-third female, and two-thirds of that group is Latina. Half of the firm is also female.

Rohrbacker, who has always been passionate about diversity (in fifth grade she rewrote the Declaration of Independence to create a declaration of women’s rights), believes that the extent of inclusion at the firm is an important key to its success and sustainability. “Our diversity of cultures, race, gender, and thought creates a very powerful, unifying force that also happens to produce very high employee engagement,” she says. “We recognized a long time ago that you need a mix of people and perspectives at the table to remain successful.”

Considering the firm’s operations are so vast, Rohrbacker works closely with the process improvement and standards group to streamline processes and help teams work smarter and more efficiently. She also has the opportunity to work on the training and development she missed in the early part of her career. HR develops highly customized and targeted content to provide bite-sized video instruction, spot coaching, and development programs.

“We embrace the opportunity to create two-way relationships with our employees that prepare them for leadership roles with bespoke soft skills training,” Rohrbacker points out.

She also recognizes that she has come full circle over the course of her career. “I started in law firms where I felt stifled in development and have ended up being head of an HR department that creates customized development programs,” she says. “It’s a privilege to work for a firm that supports such an innovative approach.”