Morgan, Lewis & Bockius has elected litigation head Jami Wintz McKeon as its new chair, bucking the recent trend of Philadelphia firms moving their leadership outside the city.
Morgan Lewis announced Tuesday that its partnership elected McKeon to a five-year term starting next October. McKeon currently sits on the firm’s 18-member advisory board and heads up the 700-lawyer litigation practice.
McKeon will replace Francis M. Milone, who has served as the firm’s chairman since 1999.
The move keeps Morgan Lewis’ leadership base in Philadelphia at a time when some of the city’s largest firms have passed the torch to lawyers in other markets.
Most recently, for example, Saul Ewing selected Baltimore partner and business and finance practice chair Barry F. Levin to be its next managing partner, effective January 21, 2014.
Levin will be the first managing partner in Saul Ewing’s history to be based outside the Philadelphia area.
In February, Pepper Hamilton announced New York-based partner Louis J. Freeh as chairman of its executive committee about a year after the firm hired New York-based nonlawyer Scott Green to serve in the newly created role of chief executive officer.
Before that, in July 2011, Barton J. Winokur, the Philadelphia-based chairman and chief executive officer of Dechert, handed off a portion of his duties to New York-based Andrew J. Levander, who now serves as chairman, while Philadelphia-based partner Daniel O’Donnell serves as CEO.
McKeon said that while Philadelphia has been and continues to be a very important market for Morgan Lewis, the firm did not specifically set out to elect another Philadelphia-based chair.
“I don’t think we think of ourselves as having a headquarters,” McKeon said.
Milone agreed, saying the fact that McKeon happens to currently be based in Philadelphia “was completely irrelevant” to the partnership’s decision to elect her as chairwoman.
Instead, Milone said, the nominating committee was interested in finding the attorney who would be “the best steward of the firm.”
“They could have been in Dallas, they could have been in Paris,” Milone said.
Regardless of where McKeon was based, she would have been “at the top of the list,” according to Milone, who also noted that McKeon spends a considerable amount of time practicing in New York.
But McKeon was quick to point out that the firm has no intention of distancing itself from its Philadelphia roots.
Similarly, J. Gordon Cooney Jr., managing partner of Morgan Lewis’ Philadelphia office, said the firm has “been both focused on our global expansion while remaining very committed and true to our heritage here in Philadelphia.”
“We consider our clients, friends and neighbors in the community here to be exceptionally important,” Cooney said.
Recruiter Frank D’Amore said McKeon represents a “best of all worlds” scenario for Morgan Lewis because she’s a Philadelphia-based litigator who also has a deep familiarity with the firm’s West Coast presence, having spent eight years in San Francisco building up the firm’s California offices.
D’Amore said McKeon was particularly instrumental in the firm’s acquisition of nearly 150 lawyers from the now-defunct San Francisco firm Brobeck, Phleger & Harrison.
“Because the California presence has been important to them, I think Jami being out there for a length of time made a real difference” in the firm’s leadership selection, D’Amore said.
Milone said that although geography was not a consideration in McKeon’s election, the work she did spearheading the firm’s West Coast expansion and helping to integrate the new hires in California was part of what made her such a well-qualified candidate to lead the firm.
McKeon said her experience on both coasts has given her a useful perspective on how Morgan Lewis operates as a whole.
“If lawyers weren’t limited by bar admission membership, it would be terrific for firm leadership to spend a lot of time in other geographies,” McKeon said. “It allows you to get a sense of how clients see things in other legal markets and how your colleagues see things.”
McKeon has spent her entire career at Morgan Lewis, joining the firm in 1981 after graduating from Villanova University School of Law. (Milone, then a young partner, is among those she spoke to during interviews.) Over the years, she has helped lead the Philadelphia litigation practice, and later the entire group; served on the compensation, professional evaluation, and recruiting committees; and been a longstanding member of the firm’s advisory board.
In 2011, she helped create a new associate training program along with client Matthew Biben, general counsel of JPMorgan Chase’s consumer and community banking division, that sees a few associates each year start their career at the banking giant before coming back to Morgan Lewis.
D’Amore called McKeon a “real in-the-trenches, top-notch lawyer.”
“She’s very bright, dedicated and tenacious,” D’Amore said. “I know from personal experience a couple of her key clients who absolutely revere her. She’s the real deal from a practice standpoint.”
Cooney, who has known McKeon since 1982, when he was still a law student, called her a “remarkably talented” lawyer who has been a “transformative leader” in the firm’s litigation practice.
McKeon said she plans to continue her litigation practice after she takes over as chairwoman.
“If you’re in a firm or company where the focus is on serving clients, then being involved yourself in client service helps you shape the direction of the firm,” McKeon said. “I think it’s important for the leaders of a firm to stay very close to the practice.”
Milone, meanwhile, said he hasn’t thought about what he’ll do at Morgan Lewis once he’s no longer chairman, but plans to spend the next year continuing to run the firm as he has been while helping to transition his role to McKeon.
McKeon said she intends to spend the next 90 days assembling her management team.
During Milone’s run as chairman, Morgan Lewis has grown and kept pace with its industry peers. In 1999, Morgan Lewis was the 13th highest-grossing law firm in the country, according to the Am Law 100, with gross revenue of $429.5 million and profits per equity partner of $505,000. By 2009, the firm had edged up to No. 11 on the Am Law 100. Last year, Morgan Lewis landed at No. 12 on the annual rankings, with gross revenue of $1.23 billion and profits per equity partner of $1.55 million.
Much of the expansion in recent years has been a byproduct of other law firms imploding, including the nearly 150 lawyers from Brobeck Phleger after merger talks between the two firms collapsed.
Other mass hires followed. The firm gained partners from Howrey in Chicago and Irvine, Calif., when that firm went under in 2011. Last year, Morgan Lewis opened offices in Moscow and Almaty, Kazakhstan, with Dewey & LeBoeuf laterals, hiring 65 former Dewey lawyers in total in the United States and abroad.
Milone said one of the things he’s most proud of about his tenure at the helm of Morgan Lewis is the firm’s stability over the years, from its finances to its client service and commitment to its employees.
“There’s something I think is very rewarding in having been one of the people — and it’s been many who have done it — to be able to accomplish that kind of stability — to let people have good careers, good client service and to keep people employed,” Milone said.
Sara Randazzo contributed to this report.