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Silicon Valley Heavyweight Edged out Litigator to Take Top Post at Orrick
2012-11-02 03:05:00 PM
SAN FRANCISCO Ralph Baxter made Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe a global operation, but the race to succeed him as chairman came down to two Bay Area partners.
Although Los Angeles finance partner Alan Benjamin and New York litigator James Stengel were also finalists for the job, Menlo Park corporate partner Mitchell Zuklie and San Francisco litigator Walter Brown Jr. emerged as the frontrunners, current and former partners at Orrick told The Recorder. Zuklie now leads the firm's corporate business unit, and Brown heads the litigation business unit.
"I was flattered to be considered for the position and would have been honored to serve my partners, but I am thrilled with the selection that the committee has made," said Brown, a former federal prosecutor who handles high-profile white-collar cases.
Partners at Orrick are grateful for Baxter's contributions, said Patricia Gillette, an employment partner based in San Francisco. But after his 22-year run, she said, "there's a yearning to see what Orrick looks like managed by a completely different person."
That yearning won't be quickly satisfied: Zuklie, whose selection as chair-elect Orrick announced this past week, will begin his term in January 2014.
The contest shaped up as a choice between two of the firm's most-respected partners, Gillette added. "We're really lucky because both of these guys are well-loved both within their practice groups and within the firm," she said. "I think people are generally pleased with the outcome."
Many partners at Orrick have rallied around Zuklie, but some particularly litigators are disappointed that Brown was not chosen, people both inside and outside the firm say.
Former IP partner Fabio Marino said he thinks Zuklie is a smart choice for Orrick. But he was a bit surprised that Zuklie edged out Brown.
"There were a lot of people who were pulling for Walt," said Marino, who left Orrick to join McDermott Will & Emery this past spring. "I thought he was the more likely choice."
Support for prospective chairmen at law firms often splits along practice lines, legal recruiters say.
"It is positive for people when someone from their practice area is elected," said Sabina Lippman, a legal recruiter at Lippman Jungers LLC. "That elevates the importance placed on that practice area."
The selection of a new chairman for Orrick was a year and a half in the making. The process began with a survey of all Orrick partners, who were asked to evaluate the traits that they wanted in the firm's next head and suggest candidates for the job, said Menlo Park-based corporate partner Donald Keller Jr., who co-chaired the selection committee. The committee's choice will be put to partners for ratification this coming January.
"I think it's important for the partners to embrace him," Keller said. "We fully expect that they will."
As candidates, Brown and Zuklie both voiced a desire to keep up their practices, and Zuklie reiterated that intention after his selection was announced. That would be a big departure for Orrick, where Baxter has been perhaps one of the more visible and energetic examples of the law firm chair as full-time manager and visionary.
Keller said members of the committee thought it would be beneficial for the firm to have a chairman who continued to practice law and that engagement with clients would enhance the chairman's leadership.
And in January, the firm carved out five business units, replacing a system in which practice groups were divided simply between transactions and litigation.
In Zuklie, Orrick will have a chairman who leads by consensus, said Denise Mingrone, an IP partner in the Menlo Park office.
"Mitch leads in a very understated, sort of humble way. ... He is not someone who walks into a room and says, 'This is how it's going to be,'" she said. "I think that enlarging the leadership is a good thing as we continue to grow."
ON A MISSION
Zuklie will now be the face of a law firm, but his value to clients, and to the firm, extends far beyond legal advice, said client Randy Komisar, an investment partner at the venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers.
Komisar noted that he also turns to Zuklie for advice on boardroom dynamics and negotiations.
"He doesn't approach the law as an academic exercise. He's there to help you use the law to make your business more successful," Komisar said.
Zuklie said his curiosity about technology led him to the law. As a college student, he sensed that Silicon Valley would shape his generation, and he wanted the flexibility to work with a wide range of clients in the region.
After earning his law degree from UC-Berkeley School of Law in 1996, Zuklie joined Venture Law Group, a firm focused on corporate startup work that soared during the tech boom but faltered when the bubble burst. As an associate, Zuklie brought in clients and handled transactions that were atypical for his rank, said Keller, who was also at VLG at the time.
"Many people said that he would be the leader of whatever organization that he was at," Keller recalled.
Zuklie says his start at Venture Law Group helped shape his management style. Working with startups, he got an early taste of the impact his work could have on companies' bottom lines.
"It was a place that was very empowering. People felt like they had a mission," Zuklie said. "That experience is an important part of who I am, and it will shape how I look at Orrick, no question about it."
He joined Orrick in 2005, a few years after Venture Law Group was acquired by the now-defunct Heller Ehrman. He said he did not envision back then that he'd be taking the reins at Orrick today.
A 43-year-old and a lateral, Zuklie deviates somewhat from the traditional chairman mold. But he doesn't feel young to be stepping into the role.
"Silicon Valley is filled with people who are pretty engaged in their professions at a young age," he said. "It doesn't feel in any way abnormal to me."
Zuklie said he did not wrestle over whether or not to pursue the chairmanship. But keeping up his practice is important to him. Although he understands that his work with clients will have to be scaled back, he feels that keeping one hand in the business will make him a better leader of Orrick.
Baxter said he thinks that both partners and clients would welcome Zuklie's decision to keep practicing. But he gave up his practice in employment law shortly after taking the top post at Orrick.
"I hope he can do it," Baxter said. "I concluded long ago that given the nature of my practice, it wasn't feasible."
Legal consultant Peter Zeughauser said that it probably isn't sensible for a large, global law firm like Orrick.
"I think almost every new chair says that [he or she will continue to practice]. Few, if any, are able to do it," he said. "If the chairman of a firm can't provide more value by leading the firm than by running his or her practice, then you need a different chairman."
Baxter was Zuklie's age when he became Orrick's chairman. But Zuklie can't say whether he'll want to be leading the firm at 65.
"I really want to focus on doing this well in the years ahead," Zuklie said. "Then I'll see what the future holds."