Global and international law firms have long insisted that they have no single home office—maintaining that both service to clients and firm management transcend geography.
More recently, a similar approach has trickled down to firms with a few hundred lawyers and a regional or super-regional presence, such as midsize, Philadelphia-based Weber Gallagher Simpson Stapleton Fires & Newby, which this month elected a New Jersey partner as its new chair.
Law firm management consultant Brad Hildebrandt said firms have a limited number of lawyers with firmwide leadership potential, so removing geographic limits helps them select the right person.
Having a non-headquarters-based leader is “quite common actually. Most firms that are growing really don’t declare themselves as having a headquarters in one place anymore,” Hildebrandt said. While it’s more common in Big Law than at midsize firms, it’s become increasingly frequent in the last decade, he said.
“As tech grows and you work with people among different offices, the fences … are broken down,” said Joe Dougherty, Philadelphia-based CEO of Pittsburgh-based Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney. “Even 10 years ago I think it was harder to work with people in different offices.”
Dougherty said he travels to the firm’s Pittsburgh office at least twice a month. ”That’s the biggest impact, is it just requires more time than otherwise away from your primary office,” Dougherty said.
Barry Levin, Baltimore-based managing partner of Saul Ewing Arnstein & Lehr, said he travels to Philadelphia three to four times a month, though it was more like five to seven times a month when he first took on the position in 2014.
But these law firm leaders would probably be on the road a lot anyway, even if they were based in the firm’s original hometown.
“Chairmen travel all the time. At the bigger firms, the chairmen travel frequently,” Hildebrandt said.
Levin suggested he would travel nearly the same amount if he was resident in Philadelphia. Since the firm added offices in Chicago and Florida through a merger with Arnstein & Lehr last year, the travel includes more time in the air, he noted.
“If I was in Philly on a full-time basis, I’d be spending time going to Baltimore and all our other offices,” he said. “I just don’t know any other way. I’m a people person who thrives on individual personal relationships.”
‘Something People Questioned’
Leading a midsize law firm from outside its largest office is still relatively unusual, though not unheard of. Earlier this month Weber Gallagher, a 110-lawyer firm based in Philadelphia, elected its new chairman, Andrew Indeck, who practices in Bedminster, New Jersey, where the firm has 23 lawyers.
“That was certainly something people questioned initially … in terms of the leader of the firm being outside Philadelphia,” Indeck said. But, he noted, it was helpful to point to a history of board of directors and management committee members who were not Philadelphia-based. Appointing a New Jersey leader, he said, “reflects the fact that we really can practice from any of our offices at any time.”
That’s been a change since he joined Weber Gallagher 10 years ago, he said.
“When I arrived … it was still relatively Philly-centric,” Indeck said. But the firm has since started to look north, to New Jersey and New York, where it recently opened an office. The firm also added a New Castle, Delaware, office early this year. And further expansion may be on the horizon in Washington, D.C., Northern Virginia and Maryland as well, he said.
Former chairman Paul Fires said he would have been against the idea a couple decades ago, before the firm grew into a more regional model and technology allowed for easy communication between offices. But now, in 2018, he was an advocate for Indeck taking on the firmwide leadership role.
At Saul Ewing, “I don’t think there was resistance. It was more just the history of how our firm grew and evolved,” Levin said. He pointed to 1998, when the firm’s merger with Weinberg & Green made Baltimore its second-largest office. It may have been a different situation if Saul Ewing didn’t have such a significant presence in Baltimore, he noted.
“It depends on the law firm model,” Levin said. “If you’re a one- or two- or three-office law firm, it’s different.”
Rather than resistance, Buchanan Ingersoll’s Dougherty said he saw enthusiasm in the firm when a Philadelphia lawyer became CEO. It has also helped the firm compete in Philadelphia, he said.
“I think people were excited because it did show we were moving to a bigger, more national platform,” he said. ”It drives home that we’re not just a Pittsburgh firm.”
Having the perspective of a lawyer from outside the headquarters can have other benefits too.
“Partners that feel like they’re in satellite offices often feel disconnected. … I think we’ve done a really good job of consciously not having a mother ship,” Levin said. “It would be easier to go to the same office every day, but it would be less effective.”