Calling the shots: GrayRobinson law firm gives Mayanne Downs full control
Last spring, Mike Haag applied for a chief marketing role at GrayRobinson in Orlando. Haag, who had spent a decade working at other large law firms, expected to run through a gauntlet of committees and boards before being hired. But 20 minutes into an interview with GrayRobinson’s new president and managing director, Mayanne Downs, he got the green light.
“He had been vetted, and I knew what I was looking for,” says Downs, who had set aside a full hour for the interview. “We could both save that 40 minutes because we didn’t need it. I said, ‘This is perfect. You’re just what we want. You’re hired. Done!’ ”
At most large law firms, executive committees made up of a dozen or so partners decide everything from whether to open a new office to what art hangs on the walls. At GrayRobinson, Downs has full decision-making authority over the firm’s management and day-to-day operations, including hiring and firing. She has no term limit, putting her in charge indefinitely, and does not need board of directors approval — with an exception for charter matters, such as whether to make an attorney partner.
“We’re trying to ensure decisions are made quickly so that everyone can move on with their lives,” she says. “We just don’t send things to committee the way a lot of organizations do.”
When Downs was named managing director in September 2016, she became the only woman at any of Florida’s 20 largest law firms to hold the top position. With about 300 attorneys and lobbyists in 13 offices across the state, GrayRobinson ranks as Florida’s fifth-largest law firm.
Downs’ authority within GrayRobinson puts her among the most influential women leading Florida businesses today. “Basically, she’s a benevolent dictator,” says firm Chairman Byrd “Biff” Marshall. “She holds the title of president and managing director and runs everything.”
During a recent morning at the office, Downs’ cell phone rings and buzzes with incoming messages from co-workers. She does not suffer fools quietly. One ambiguous text message irks her.
“Say what you mean; mean what you say,” she says as she reads the message off her phone. Her 16th-floor office features a Buddha statue and a sign that says, “I’ll be nicer if you’ll be smarter.” Her phone’s ringtone: “I Won’t Back Down,” by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.
“I’m comfortable making decisions,” she says. “When you have to make a hard decision that’s going to disappoint somebody, it’s tempting to push it off to a group of people who’ll process it, chew it and digest it. But many times, lawyers in a law firm need an answer, and if the answer disappoints them, that’s OK — at least they can go forward.”
The firm’s structure and culture enable it to respond immediately to time-sensitive matters, especially in the area of government relations, “where the politics of a particular matter can change quickly,” she says.