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Jay Rothman, Foley & Lardner LLP

IB Wisconsin's Professional of the Week is the premier way to meet the state's professionals. This week features Jay Rothman, chairman and CEO, Foley & Lardner.

How long have you been at Foley & Lardner, and how would you describe your role?

I will celebrate 25 years at Foley & Lardner on Oct. 1, after first working for the firm as a summer associate. I’ve spent my entire professional career at Foley, other than a one-year clerkship with a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit.

In June of this year, I was appointed chairman and CEO of the firm (comprised of 21 offices, the largest of which is in Milwaukee). In that role, I oversee day-to-day operations and the implementation of our firm’s strategic plan. I work very closely with our managing partner, Stan Jaspan, and our chief operating officer, Darrell Ohlhauser.

Who would you say has influenced your career the most, and in what way?

There are several:

First, the Foley & Lardner partners who mentored me very early in my law career, some of whom continue to mentor me today. These partners provided me with guidance in the technical aspects of practicing law, but, of greater importance, also taught me how to be true counselors to our clients. Much of being a good lawyer comes down to judgment and common sense. Law is important, but these mentors taught me an invaluable lesson: we can’t just view ourselves as pure, legal technicians, but rather as trusted advisors. This approach is part of the cultural fabric of Foley & Lardner, and, I believe, sets our firm apart from many other law firms.

The other person is the judge I clerked for on the Seventh Circuit, Judge Harlington Wood Jr. My experience working with Judge Wood taught me that the law impacts people in a very real sense, which sometimes we don’t grasp when we study abstract legal concepts. My clerkship was a terrific introduction to the practice of law, as it brought the law to life and helped me understand how the law impacts people and businesses in daily application. 

Who would you most like to be a mentor to, or have the most influence on?

Other than my kids, professionally, I view it as an obligation to pass on some of the mentoring that I received from the senior partners here at Foley.

When I joined Foley, it was made very clear that, in addition to serving our clients, we have an obligation to give back to our firm and to the community; an element of the culture that I appreciate and respect.

Mentorship is part of being a Foley partner – we see it as just as crucial to our role with the firm as finding solutions to client problems, and acting as true counselors to them. 

We have a sense that we need to give back – it’s a given. It’s the right thing to do and is consistent with our culture. In a world that moves at a fast pace, it is critical to mentor others and impart culture and values that will leave a firm that is stronger than the one we joined.

What was a personal high point in your career?

There are several:

I played a role in engineering several major, challenging transactions of which I am very proud, including a three-way merger of public companies – an extraordinarily complex transaction. To put it in perspective, when the deal was signed I had no kids, and when it was completed I had two (and they are not twins).

Another high point for me involved a very complicated transaction for which there was no template or legal precedent: our value in this deal emanated from our skill in helping the client find legal avenues to accomplish its goals, literally without a road map, anticipating nuances and obstacles that might arise. In the end, we got it done.

The other is being selected and having the privilege to serve in my current role as chairman and CEO of a firm with a strong, 170-year legacy in Wisconsin (and now nationally and internationally), which is home to some unbelievably talented people. It’s the stuff that keeps you awake at night from time to time, but it’s a significant honor.

What special career advice do you have for someone who is looking for meaningful work in this economic climate?

A lot of what we do in the legal profession takes a high degree of intelligence, but that alone is not enough: work ethic and passion for one’s profession are essential. I believe that if you don’t love what you do, you ought to look for something else. What we do is very difficult, but if you love it, then you enjoy the work and are energized by it.

I would advise job seekers that if they really love the practice of law, stick with it. I’m a firm believer that you are in control of your own career path and help shape it with the choices you make. You define your own career path and your own success. 

Do you have any long-range goals that you’d like to achieve before leaving Foley & Lardner?

I’d like to leave behind a firm that is stronger than the one that existed when I began in this role. That might mean a firm with a broader national and international reach, but definitely one that is strong financially and strong in terms of camaraderie and collegiality: the things that define a partnership in the true sense.

For Foley & Lardner, a strong, successful firm is highly dependent on our lawyers working collectively to do great work and meeting the goals of our clients. As an example, we’ve recently worked to tie our firm’s financial interest more closely to our clients’ financial interest, giving us a direct connection to the value of the services we deliver to clients. By offering a sense of pricing certainty, we can offer value to clients by ensuring our work is especially focused on what they want to achieve at an acceptable price point.

Continuing to provide value while achieving client objectives will be a key in my helping support the long-term success of this firm.

What is your assessment of where the Wisconsin economy is headed? (Give us the highlights of your personal “State of the Business Union” address.)

Wisconsin, like the rest of the country, is challenged and is facing, among other issues, a high unemployment level. As our economy continues to evolve, we must not forget how strong manufacturing is in Wisconsin and we must continue to support some of the terrific manufacturers in this state that continue to grow. But we can’t view ourselves as being solely dependent on manufacturing.

At the same time, it is important that we work to secure more venture capital to grow biotech and other promising industries that have the potential to expand Wisconsin’s economy.

I’m confident we will get there: Wisconsin’s educated workforce and the strong Midwestern work ethic of the people of this state are significant advantages that we need to exploit.

I’m bullish about what this state can achieve, but I believe that our industries need to evolve, and that’s the challenge to the current generation: how to structure a business environment that will attract that growth here to Wisconsin.

What do you read to help keep you current in your field? What trade associations or training do you belong to that you feel are a good referral?

I read a lot of industry trade and daily publications, including The American Lawyer, ABA Journal, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, The Wall Street Journal, Financial Times and The New York Times. I like to get a sense of what is going on in the state, nationally, and globally.

I also belong to an organization of managing partners of law firms that gives me another perspective on my profession. In my law practice, I’ve also learned from my clients that the challenges facing law firms today are not unlike the challenges facing other businesses. Many of my clients have been generous in sharing their time with me and have been a great resource as my role with the firm has now expanded beyond just my legal practice.

When you were in high school, what were your career aspirations? Did you meet any of those? If they changed, why?

In high school, I actually wanted to be a physician, until I started running into chemistry and biology. By the time I started college, law school was on the horizon. 

What did you do with your first paycheck? Where was it from, and what was the job? How much was it?

My first pay – although it came in the form of pocket change rather than a check – evolved from my father’s aspiration to be a farmer. Although my father practiced as a dentist outside of Wausau where I grew up, he also had a farm on which we raised beef cattle and horses. My first job at age 10 or 11 was working on the farm for 25 or 50 cents an hour.

I learned a lot about life, hard work and accomplishment in that “job,” and I can’t imagine a better way to grow up as a kid.

Did you have any entrepreneurial interests at a young age?

On the farm, I raised chickens for sale.

What brought you to Wisconsin? (If a native Wisconsinite, tell us where you were born and raised.)

I am a native Wisconsinite, born and raised near Wausau.

Is there anything you’d like to share about your family?

I am married and have two kids: my daughter is a sophomore at Whitefish Bay High School and my son is in the eighth grade at Whitefish Bay Middle School. Understandably, I’m spending an increasing amount of time watching soccer on the weekends.

What do you do outside of the office to relax?
I most enjoy spending time with my family.

What is your favorite place to travel to, and why?

I’m still enamored with Europe, and particularly love the city of London due, in part I suspect, to the history and the common culture.

It’s amazing when you get outside of the U.S., you get a real sense of history and where we’ve come as a civilization that we don’t get in the U.S. because of the relatively young age of our country. To see the evolution of democracy, for example, is absolutely fascinating.

What kinds of books do you read for pleasure? What’s a recent title that might give us the flavor of what you like to read?

I enjoy reading books that provide historical perspective. Earlier this year, I finally got around to reading On the Brink, written by former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson. To get an inside retrospective on a financial system that was essentially collapsing – especially when compared and contrasted with memories of what you were reading in the paper at the time – was fascinating.

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