Bench & Bar of Minnesota is the official publication of the Minnesota State Bar Association.

Meet Tom Leighton: ‘An entirely new legal environment’

TOM LEIGHTON is vice president of content acquisition and judicial relations at Thomson Reuters Legal in Eagan, Minnesota. He started at West Publishing in 1989 as a headnote editor and has had a series of interesting and challenging roles in the succeeding 28 years as the company has evolved. He and his wife Jeanette have five mostly grown children. 

Tell us about your career path after you graduated from law school.

As my time at the University of Minnesota Law School was nearing its end, I wasn’t sure traditional law firm practice was the best fit for me. On my dad’s advice, I joined the Navy Judge Advocate Generals Corps (JAG) and spent three-plus years on active duty in Pensacola, Florida. It was a tremendous honor to serve in the armed forces and an extraordinary legal experience as I rotated through the roles of prosecutor, defense counsel, and administrative claims officer. I served for a year as the legal officer for the Naval Flight Demonstration Squadron (The Blue Angels) and also did temporary duty as the JAG on the USS Lexington, the aircraft carrier then used to train all new Navy and Marine Corps pilots. After leaving active duty, I worked for a law firm in Minneapolis for a short time before joining West Publishing. For nearly 30 years now, I’ve had the great fortune to work in a number of different roles primarily focused on our relationship with the courts and our acquisition of information from all state and federal governments. 

What has been the most memorable experience of your career?

I have been fortunate to work with members of the judiciary at all levels across the country. It has been incredibly rewarding to deal with such an amazing group of smart, courageous, and dedicated people. I have worked with a number of United States Supreme Court justices, including Justice Antonin Scalia, who authored two books for us with Bryan Garner. In early 2016, I joined Bryan, his wife Karolyne, and Justice Scalia on a two-week speaking tour in Singapore and Hong Kong. The justice traveled with no security entourage so the four of us spent a great deal of time together at the various lectures, dinners, and social events—and also found time for some sightseeing. Justice Scalia was charming, witty, and very entertaining. It was truly the experience of a lifetime and I will treasure the memories forever. Tragically Justice Scalia died a little more than a week after we returned from the trip.

In your past 10 years at Thomson Reuters, what significant changes have you seen in the legal industry? How have/will those changes affect the practice of law?

Since the beginning of the great recession, we’ve been working in an entirely new legal environment. General counsels have to do more with less. In our work with corporate legal departments, it’s clear that they’ve had to become more strategic with their spending, acting like legal supply chain managers—disaggregating their legal matters and using legal managed services and alternative staffing firms for the high-volume, process-heavy work. Also there is increasing regulation in global business and experiments in deregulation in the legal marketplace. These changes are absolutely transforming the legal ecosystem. 

Of course, technology is also a fundamental driver of change and has a major impact on the life of every knowledge-worker, every professional. Today every business is a digital business, and the law firm is no different—and therefore technology will disrupt its very business model as well as the experience it delivers to its customers, and it will diversify the talent it requires to succeed. Look at the adoption of cloud computing, which is really less than a decade old. Software as a service (SAAS) is becoming standard. Automated workflows, predictive coding, cognitive computing, and big data analytics are transforming the practice of law and the consumption of legal services. 

What do you value in your MSBA membership?

Relationships and access to information and analysis about government, the law, and the legal community are critical to my job. The MSBA, through a variety of services, including Capitol Connection, Legal News Digest and the Bench & Bar Digital Edition, provides me with rich resources to help me get my work done. As I mentioned earlier, much has changed and continues to change in the practice of law since I started my career. However, the value of strong professional and collegial relationships has remained a constant and I appreciate the role that MSBA plays in fostering those relationships.

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