After years of partner defections and a leadership structure that many thought was untenable, Mayer Brown announced on Friday that Chairman James Holzhauer would step down before the end of the year. An immediate successor wasn't named.
In an e-mail to his fellow partners on Friday morning, Holzhauer stated that he would remain as chairman through a transition period, but he would step aside once a successor was chosen or ready to take over.
In a phone interview with The Am Law Daily, Holzhauer says health issues and a weariness with the constant travel associated with management duties influenced his decision to step down.
"[Management has] taken a toll on my family, and it's taken a toll on my health," says the 60-year-old Holzhauer. "And now it's time to take care of myself."
Mayer Brown's leadership structure last changed in June 2007 after the mandatory retirement of longtime Chairman Tyrone Fahner. Holzhauer, an appellate lawyer and former University of Chicago law professor, was named chairman.
But the firm also named two vice chairs to supplement Holzhauer's leadership: M&A partner Paul Maher in London and appellate litigator Kenneth Geller in Washington, D.C. That led some to question the feasibility of spreading the firm's management team across three cities and two continents.
"You can't have three chairmen," a former Mayer Brown partner told Legal Times in a July 2007 story about the three-headed firm leadership. "It's never worked in the history of U.S. business."
Reflecting on his tenure as chairman, Holzhauer says the firm's leadership structure had both "pluses and minuses."
"In some ways it's blurred authority and in other ways it's given me the opportunity to work with two very, very capable partners," he says, adding that Mayer Brown is in the process of completely revamping its management structure.
"We are changing our overall governance of the firm, it's completely open now," Holzhauer says. "The process has just started as of today on figuring out what we do next."
Holzhauer says that three members of the firm's 17-member management committee will start by canvassing other members of the committee and the general partnership "over the next few days and weeks" to develop a plan for going forward.
Asked whether Geller and Maher would remain as vice chairs or potentially be in line to succeed him, Holzhauer says that he "has no idea" what the firm's new management structure will look like.
While Holzhauer is stepping out of Mayer Brown's management for the first time in years -- he's spent 11 years on the firm's management committee and prior to becoming chairman served as the firm's general counsel -- he will remain a partner in the Supreme Court and appellate practice.
And Holzhauer, who says he is looking forward to putting aside his administrative tasks and returning to appellate litigation, doesn't anticipate hanging around as outgoing chairman.
"I think it's likely that we'll have a successor in place before the end of the year, perhaps as early as June," he says. "So whether I'm still chairman or not, I'll still be around to help with the transition."
Mayer Brown has certainly had more than its fair share of upheaval in recent years. Within the past two years alone, more than 100 partners have left the firm, 45 through a mass de-equitization in March 2007.
Mayer Brown is also facing a $2 billion claim by the bankruptcy trustee in the collapse of New York-based commodities trader Refco. Private equity firm Thomas H. Lee Partners is also suing the firm for its involvement in Refco and former Mayer Brown partner Joseph Collins' trial in a related criminal case is set to start in early April.
But Holzhauer focuses on the positives.
"The firm is going to move forward quite well, and we've actually weathered some of the financial storms better than our competitors because we are geographically and practice area diversified," he says. "We're going to feel some bumps, sure, but our litigation practice is actually quite busy."
(Mayer Brown reported gross revenues of $1.3 billion in 2008, a 9 percent decrease from the year before, while profits per equity partner fell 11 percent to $1.1 million.)
Holzhauer highlights the recent white-collar hires of Lynn Neils and Sean Casey in the litigation group as well as new insurance group co-heads Clifford Schoenberg and Kenneth Pierce, who came from Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft and Morgan Stanley's global capital markets division, respectively.
And perhaps more importantly, Holzhauer says that he's been working with his doctors and others on feeling healthy again. He says that he's lost more than 100 pounds on a strict exercise program and for the first time in years plans on taking a fishing trip to Alaska in July.
Holzhauer's even thinking about teaching again.
"I want to devote time to the appellate practice so I don't want to overextend myself and get back to [working] 4,000 hours a year," he jokes. "But I'm giving some thought to it, although in the past I've probably tried to do too much."
--Additional reporting by Rachel Breitman
This article first appeared in The Am Law Daily, on AmericanLawyer.com.