Law Firm Leaders' Books of Business Lend Credibility

Law Firm Leaders' Books of Business Lend Credibility iStock

As law firms grew in size and complexity, there was a well-adopted school of thought over the past decade that the firms’ leaders should focus 100 percent of their time on managing what had become large-scale businesses. But in Pennsylvania alone, there are a number of firms, including the largest by head count and the most profitable, respectively, whose leaders have some of the largest books of business in the state.

And, for them, it comes down to credibility.

“I think it is easy to lose touch if all you are doing is … running the firm,” said Dechert chairman Andrew J. Levander.

As a practicing lawyer on top of his leadership duties, Levander said he knows what it means to work with teams, ­negotiate with clients on fees, ensure associate development and assist clients with ­complex matters.

Levander certainly has that last point down. His more than 2,000 billable hours per year have been racked up in the last few years on leading the firm’s representation of Takata on criminal, civil and regulatory matters related to allegedly defective air bags; former New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine related to the collapse of MF Global; the former general counsel of GM related to the ignition switch concerns; the outside directors for Lehman Brothers; and former Barclays CEO Robert Diamond, among others.

So when former Dechert chairman Barton Winokur informed Levander years ago that he was elected to a spot on the policy committee, Levander’s response was, “Do I have to serve?” The answer was strongly suggested as yes.

And then when Winokur told Levander he should take over as chairman when Winokur sought to return to the practice of law in 2011, Levander said that wasn’t what he envisioned doing with this time.

“There was a lot about the practice of law I didn’t know about,” Levander said. “I thought my best and highest use was to solve clients’ difficult problems.”

But Levander agreed to take on the role if the firm created a two-person management team with someone else running the day-to-day operations of the firm. And since 2011, Daniel O’Donnell has been that other person, serving as CEO. That has allowed Levander to continue his average of at least one major trial a year while handling the other highly visible work he oversees.

Levander said being chairman may help him get some work, but he said it could have backfired if clients thought they were no longer going to get his full attention as he was pulled away for firms duties. For Levander, the compromise is an 80-20 split (something he said his wife would say is more like ­100-50) on client matters versus firm matters.

For Morgan, Lewis & Bockius’ Jami Wintz McKeon, her practice has shifted since taking over as chairwoman in 2014. She now spends more time advising her financial industry clients than on taking their cases to trial.

For McKeon, giving up her practice was not an option. She likes the work, and her involvement with the practice enhances her credibility with her partners, she said.

“I’m not asking anybody to do anything that I’m not doing,” McKeon said.

Like Levander, no one day is the same, with some days spent more on firm management issues and other devoted more to clients. When practicing full-time, McKeon was routinely billing between 2,000 and 2,500 hours a year. Now her time to the firm comes in between 3,500 and 4,000 hours when incorporating management.

Even if she was managing full-time, however, McKeon said a multiperson management team for a firm of Morgan Lewis’ size—2,000 lawyers—is essential.

“One person wouldn’t do a comprehensive job even full-time,” McKeon said.

At Morgan Lewis, McKeon works with three managing partners, each responsible for a different aspect of firm management. That is on top of the nonlawyer administration team, practice group leadership and an advisory board.

It is the increasing use of nonlawyer management that may be giving law firm leaders the flexibility to maintain a practice.

That is if firm leaders give those administrators the backing to do the job the right way, said LawVision Group consultant Silvia Coulter.

“Many business professionals have run businesses much bigger than these law firms,” Coulter said.

And maintaining a practice is good for firm leaders in two main respects, she said. First, they gain the respect of their partners. Secondly, when their term is up as head of the firm, they still have a practice to return to.

The changing service model and current legal climate make the role of a strong leader all the more important, Coulter said. Firms and other providers are trying to steal business away. Firm leaders need to be able to lead their firms into the future by forecasting what is in the pipeline and making sure that pipeline is full, Coulter said.

Firm leaders should be helping the firm close business, whether it is theirs or other partners’. And they shouldn’t be looking to take origination credit for it, she said. They should act like actual CEOs and go out and sell the company, she said.

A big part of effectively balancing rainmaking, a practice and firm management is delegation, Coulter said.

That has been essential for Montgomery McCracken Walker & Rhoads chairman Richard Scheff. He is one of his firm’s highest billers and is responsible for leading its strategic vision. For Scheff, there were partners who were concerned about him taking over leadership back in 2009 and potentially impacting his practice. But he said not practicing was not an option for him. He enjoys it too much.

“Basically, my response to them was, ‘If I have to work 24/7, I am going to get this done, and that’s what I’ve done,” Scheff said.

He said he isn’t sure his model would be sustainable at a 1,500-lawyer firm. But for him, scheduling days that are devoted solely to firm management issues, scattered among his client work, has proven feasible.

Scheff said he has delegated a lot of day-to-day decisions to other partners or senior administration, such as the executive director or chief financial officer. They all know that Scheff needs to sign off on certain issues or matters of a certain dollar amount, but otherwise they make the call.

“What I’ve done is, I’ve defined, these are the decisions that need to come to me,” Scheff said.

What the firm leaders all agreed on was that a person with a big book of business does not automatically equate to a successful manager.

“The friction firms have is that people who fit that definition naturally have a fair amount of weight in terms of what goes on just because of the fact that they are generating a lot of business,” Scheff said. “But that doesn’t mean they are the best managers of the firm.”

Scheff said the notion that firms should hire professional management to run the firm is something that firms may need to consider more seriously.

For those practicing lawyers who are leading these firms, what do they all have in common? Well, for Levander, McKeon and Scheff, they get up somewhere between 5 and 6 a.m., go to sleep somewhere between midnight and 1 a.m., eat dinner with their family somewhere in those wakeful hours, perhaps catch one of their children’s school events, and spend the hours before bed back at work. And in the morning, it’s playing catch-up on what happened overnight in the firms’ offices around the world.

Gina Passarella can be contacted at ­215-557-2494 or gpassarella@alm.com. Follow her on Twitter @GPassarellaTLI. •

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