Since Donald Clark Jr.’s election to chairman of Butler Snow in 2006, the partnership with Mississippi roots has grown from the three-office, 140-lawyer outfit it was a decade ago, to a 330-lawyer international firm with offices in 24 locations.
Clark, 68, will have another two-and-a-half years to continue his firm’s Bull Run. The Jackson, Mississippi-based partner was re-elected chairman this week to serve in leadership until January 2020. His term was set to expire at the end of the year.
“When the firm asked me to continue on for the next couple of years after this year, I told them I’d be happy to do that,” Clark said Thursday. “I think after 10 or 12 years, you kind of learn how to do this job.”
A leader with a self-deprecating wit, Clark said that Butler Snow actively pursued growth in the wake of the financial crisis. Seeing it as an opportunity to “buy low,” the firm ramped up its lateral hiring efforts and has mostly grown by adding one or two partners at a time. The largest single group of lawyers it hired was in 2012, when 37 lawyers joined from Miller & Martin in Nashville, where Butler Snow would scoop up another local firm in 2015.
Growing larger was not the only opportunity that Clark saw in the wake of the worst recession since the 1930s. He said Butler Snow anticipated client demands for better price predictability, and so the firm began aggressively offering alternative fees. More than 50 percent of the firm’s gross revenue is now based on alternative fees, Clark said.
Helping Butler Snow’s growth efforts, Clark said, is a culture based on a completely subjective compensation system. The firm does not track origination credit and the only people with access to a lawyers’ billable hour records are the lawyer, their practice group leader, one of two department chairs and Clark. A compensation committee interviews the practice group leaders, the chair and the partners, who are allowed to voice their opinion of themselves and their peers. Compensation is set every two years.
It is a process that Clark said allows Butler Snow’s partners to work more collaboratively.
“We are lawyers, of course. I’m not going to say that every lawyer is completely happy with their placement,” Clark said. “But at the same time, we’re very constructive. And we don’t have people leaving because of their placement.”
The firm continued its head count growth last year, increasing its attorney ranks by 9 percent, according to ALM Intelligence data. That momentum has rolled into this year.
Butler Snow announced earlier this month its hire of former U.S. Sen. David Vitter as of counsel in New Orleans. Vitter served 12 years in the Senate and five in the U.S. House of Representatives, and at Butler Snow he will focus on business and economic development in the energy sector and other areas.
In March, the firm added Edward Stanton III, a former U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Tennessee, in Memphis, the firm’s first office outside Mississippi. Butler Snow, which now has offices abroad in London and Singapore, has also expanded during Clark’s tenure through a number of subsidiaries.
Butler Snow Advisory Services is a business consulting firm launched in 2011. In 2015, Butler Snow launched VisionFirst Advisors, a Florida-based economic development firm led by former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour and former Florida Secretary of Commerce Gray Swoope. MRC-X, another affiliate, provides regulatory and quality consulting services to medical device, biologics and tissue companies.
“We’re a firm that is willing to take a calculated risk,” Clark said about the subsidiaries. “And that’s why I’m so complimentary of our partners who have allowed us to make these investments rather than looking at it in the short-term. I think we have a long-term view at this firm and I think that’s very good.”
The firm’s growth also caused a change for the way the chairman is elected, suggested by consultants at Altman Weil Inc., Clark said. (Altman Weil also helped Butler Snow hire a new COO last year.)
While there used to be a firmwide partner election, this time around, Butler Snow set up a nominating committee that is made up of a diverse group of lawyers who surveyed the firm and made a nomination to the partners for a chairman. Clark was the only nomination for the vote.
“So I won that by a close margin,” he said.
Clark was less willing to jest when asked if he would be willing to stay on as leader past 2020.
“I’m not a politician, so I can say never,” he said. “It’d be time to let somebody else take this over at that point and we’ve got some really capable people standing in the wings that I’m working with on a daily basis. I think the firm would be very wise to choose one of them.”