President's Speeches and Remarks
September 7, 2001
Welcome to Bowdoin College. I am Barry Mills, the new president of Bowdoin College⎯the 14th president of this great college.
It is wonderful to see so many of you here so early on this fine morning in Maine. Since this is the business breakfast, I thought I would tell you about my past experience as a lawyer and in business and how that may have prepared me for being the president of Bowdoin.
But first, a thank you. I want to thank the people of this wonderful town of Brunswick for all the warm feelings and great spirit that you have all shown me and my family. Karen, my wife, and three boys, William, Henry, and George, moved here the last week of June and we are delighted to be here. My boys are securely ensconced in the public schools here in Brunswick. We have one in each school. Karen and I are grateful to all of you who have made our move so much easier. From the workmen who worked so hard to get our renovation done, to the people in the schools who have welcomed our boys, to our neighbors on Federal Street, to the neighbors and friends who have welcomed us into their homes and made Karen and me and the boys feel welcome⎯thank you all. I won’t pretend to say that the transition has been seamless, especially for our boys, but this community has gone way out of its way to make us feel welcome.
Now, what exactly did I do those many years from when I left here in 1972 to my return on July 1?
As I spend time on the campus, people can’t avoid the typical lawyer jokes and barbs at the legal profession. People assume that, since I am a lawyer, I spent my time suing people and in court. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard “since you are a lawyer you will understand...” Well, I was a lawyer in an international law firm doing large, international and national transactions, which is not really what you would think a lawyer does from watching LA LAW or Perry Mason or even Ali MacBeal.
A number of years ago I was in lower Manhattan early one morning registering my car. A couple walked over to me and asked where the courthouse was. Now I knew I was surrounded by courthouses in the block I was on, but I was embarrassed to say that I didn’t know which one was which. I was only in a courtroom once in my 22 years of practicing law. It was in Salt Lake City, Utah, and I was representing Columbia University. Columbia had made an investment with its endowment that was high risk, high reward. But the risk won out, and it was a bad investment in some timeshare condominium projects, and I was there to observe and to protect Columbia’s interest. Not too difficult, since it didn’t have much left. I spent my entire career as a lawyer as a transactional lawyer⎯a deal lawyer. So let me describe for you a bit of my history.
I graduated from Bowdoin in 1972 as a biochemistry and government major. I immediately left here and went to Syracuse where I got a Ph.D. in biology. I taught there while I was in graduate school and studied how ions⎯like sodium and potassium⎯got across cell membranes. I was very fortunate⎯my experiments worked and we published a number of papers. I finished my degree in 1976 and decided to go to law school.
Many people ask me why. Well, I didn’t believe that I had the stuff for a career as a great researcher, and at the same time I met some people who were practicing law in New York, and it seemed very interesting and challenging to me.
So, I was admitted to Columbia Law School and off I went. When I arrived I was pleased to find two other Bowdoin people in my class, Alex Platt and Portland’s own David Warren. For those of you who remember the “Paper Chase” and Professor Kingsfield, Columbia wasn’t very different from the mythical Harvard law experience. Being a bit older gave me some perspective and helped me not to be intimidated by the Socratic method, and I found law school very challenging, but entirely intellectual. (Nothing like studying physical chemistry here at Bowdoin!)
I graduated from law school at the age of 29, and made my parents proud by starting my first job before the age of 30. The joke in my family was that I would go to school in meteorology after law school just to avoid going to work.
After my first year in law school, I interviewed for a summer associate position at the firm of Debevoise & Plimpton. Off I went to Debevoise for the summer after my second year in school. The first week I worked there I worked until 2 in the morning every night for a very demanding lawyer. But, I loved the place and decided I would go back after finishing school. I had every intention of marrying the law and science. But that wasn’t to be.
So I joined Debevoise in 1979 and became a partner in 1986. I was trained in my early years as a corporate and real estate lawyer who did a good deal of corporate finance work. Our firm worked for Chrysler in 1982 and I worked on the bailout. As a young lawyer I worked on the relationship between Chrysler and Mitsubishi Motors. Mitsubishi wanted to sell cars directly in the U.S. and Chrysler had an exclusive distribution rights. So, there I was, a second- year lawyer negotiating spare parts agreements with the Japanese and traveling to the ports of Providence and Baltimore to negotiate with port owners on spots at the docks.
I became a partner in 1986, and over the years my practice varied substantively. I did complicated financings of acquisitions of companies and real estate. Debevoise was in many ways a very old-style law firm for New York when I joined. I was trained to do many different kinds of legal work in the transactional field. Where today, young lawyers are trained as specialists in these firms⎯only doing initial public offerings, or airplane financing, or mergers and acquisition work⎯I was very lucky to be given the opportunity to do many different kinds of transactions.
I helped to organize private equity funds and did initial public offerings.
I was the legal, and in some real ways, business advisor to my clients in their transactions. I represented the likes of Continental Insurance, JP Morgan, Donaldson, Lufkin and Jenrette, private equity firms like Clayton Dubilier & Rice. My biggest client was a real estate shopping center owner and developer from Australia named Westfield. When I started representing them in 1986 they owned three regional malls in the United States. Over the years we did billions of dollars worth of transactions, and today they are a company that controls over 40 regional malls throughout the United States. They have been in the news lately for acquiring all of the retail at the World Trade Center in New York and commencing a proxy fight to gain control of a Dutch Pension Fund which owns significant U.S. assets.
I also did a significant amount of work with international clients. I spent large parts of my time representing companies from Australia, Belgium, Germany, Holland, Brazil, and Japan in their investments here in the United States. Over the years, I have traveled for business all over the United States and worldwide, giving me an appreciation and understanding of foreign economies and business and social practices.
It was a great practice and there are many lessons learned from that experience that translate very well to Bowdoin.
But first, let me tell you about Debevoise and my experience there as a partner.
I became a partner in 1986. Debevoise is a truly unique place in these times where the legal practice is not the most attractive. It is a firm of shared values, in which nearly all the partners grew up together. Although we became a large firm, I joined when we were only 120 lawyers with two offices. Now Debevoise is 500 lawyers with offices in New York, Washington, Moscow, Paris, London, Hong Kong and Frankfurt. We had an office in Los Angeles and closed it.
Two special things about the firm: first our commitment to pro bono work. D&P, as we like to call it, is as committed as any firm in this country to the common good that we at Bowdoin hold so dear. We encourage all lawyers to do pro bono work and don’t use it to foster good relations with clients, but to do good and important work on issues and for people. Our firm is consistently ranked at the top of all firms committed to pro bono work.
Second, we were a firm of shared values and community. Respect for each other and the work that we did was essential. Cooperation was valued more than any other value, to foster service to the client. We as partners were compensated in the old-fashioned way⎯each of us made the same amount as the partners we entered with, regardless of hours worked or work generated. This was a great advantage to the clients, since there was no jockeying for credit or unwillingness to help out with work.
I spent years heading up our recruiting of young lawyers. I was at other points responsible for evaluating our young lawyers. For many years I was on the firm’s management committee and was instrumental in our strategic planning⎯such as closing our office in LA and opening our office in Frankfurt⎯to the point of traveling to Germany to identity potential partners for our firm.
These firms are very big businesses⎯our revenues were in the range of $300 million annually and our expense budget was nearly $200 million. The world of international legal work is changing rapidly. There are probably 50 firms in the world with this kind of profile and there is huge consolidation going on. The days of client loyalty are long gone. Today the question isn’t necessarily how smart or talented you are, but how many offices do you have and how many deals like the one I care about have been done in your office. This makes a whole lot of sense, given the cost of legal services.
My last years at the firm were spent negotiating the real estate deal to move our firm from one building on Third Avenue to another. We just opened our new offices⎯ 500,000 square feet of office space in one office tower in New York on the East Side at 54th Street and Third.
The hours in these places can be grueling, even for senior lawyers. We were well compensated, but 15-hour days, 6 days a week were not unusual. The pressure was intense, because with e-mail and computers the pressure for instant analysis and comment became only more intense. But, it is great fun. The rush of the deal is huge fun. Achieving the goals of your client faced with intractable problems on timetables that seemed crazy was a very heady experience.
So how does this translate to Bowdoin?
Well, a number of similarities, Bowdoin is not the easiest name to pronounce and neither was Debevoise. Debevoise is a profitable firm and Bowdoin has a healthy endowment, but both are significantly less than the peers that we seek to compete with. Debevoise ranked near the top of all firms internationally in rankings such as the American Lawyer. Bowdoin is also near the top, with our newest US News ranking of 5th to be announced today when the magazine hits the newsstands. So there are some gross similarities.
But, more seriously, to be good at what I did as a lawyer it was important to learn to listen to what people were really saying and to figure out what was really important to them. My job was to make something positive happen and find solutions to impossible problems. I was trained to listen carefully and synthesize what people were really saying and put that into action. These skills will be important here on campus as they are anywhere.
Building consensus was a large part of what I was trained to do, both in the transactions we worked on and in running our firm. The firm was a real democracy, with 90 partners, all of whom thought they knew best. We have many of the same types of constituencies here on campus and understanding the need for consensus and being able to build it are critical.
I understand how to make a decision. I know the rap on lawyers is that they always have two hands, because the answer for them is always on the one hand and on the other. But to survive in the world I was in, and to provide good service to my clients, more often than not they were looking for solutions and to be told what I thought they ought to do, even if they ultimately decided to go another route.
Finally, the international part of my practice gave me an intense understanding and appreciation for how important it is to think globally for Bowdoin and its students.
So, as you can see, my life hasn’t been spent in a courtroom, but in a conference room. My life has been one of building community and building consensus around what my clients wanted to achieve. Finally, my life at the law firm was spent managing and leading in a strategic way, in a rapidly changing environment, a complicated organization of strong and keenly intelligent individuals.
Bowdoin is a very similar place⎯a place to build community in support of our core guidepost⎯academic excellence and intellectual rigor. We have to think strategically here at Bowdoin and plan for a future that is rapidly changing. The future of residential liberal arts is not a foregone conclusion, and we must be nimble and creative as we seek to stay the course of providing a first- class educational environment for our faculty, staff and students. Finally, we are an organization composed of strong and keenly intelligent individuals, all of whom care deeply about our college and its future.
I am delighted to be at Bowdoin. I don’t pretend to suggest that I know all there is to know about Bowdoin, but I at least take some comfort in knowing that my experience over these past 22 years will serve me well in leading our beloved Bowdoin.
So now please ask questions or I will fall into my law school training and start asking you questions
Thank you for coming. I hope to see you here on campus often. The floor is yours.