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J. Terence O’Malley was feeling a bit paranoid after his partners voted him a third, three-year term as chairman of Gray Cary Ware & Freidenrich. The partners were laughing — hard — as they called him back into the room during the firm’s partner retreat last weekend. “I kept looking for the pie,” O’Malley said. Nothing ended up in O’Malley’s face, and it’s still not clear what caused all the laughter. But despite the levity, one thing was certain: O’Malley’s job was safe. The reason? No one else wanted it. O’Malley and a few other Bay Area firm chairmen have beaten the odds when it comes to holding down the top law firm job. One term, maybe two, is average for a chief executive officer, said John Challenger, CEO of executive placement agency Challenger, Gray & Christmas in Chicago. CEO jobs are like political posts, and most who hold them don’t last more than five years, Challenger said. The consultant was impressed with the longevity of some of the Bay Area’s chairmen. Aside from O’Malley, other entrenched leaders include Ralph Baxter Jr., who has been chairman at Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe for 12 years; and Robert Dell, who is more than halfway through his second, five-year term as head of Latham & Watkins. And then there’s Larry Sonsini, who has already served some 20 years as head of the firm and is most likely chairman for life at Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati. “Lawyers are the most contentious, argumentative people of any profession in the country,” Challenger said. “For any one person able to withstand the second guessing, the arguing with his or her decisions — that individual has got a firm grip on the politics of that organization.” That could be it. But except for one famous leadership coup at Brobeck, Phleger & Harrison, there hasn’t been much opposition to the leadership at most firms. Sonsini claims to be surprised about the lack of opposition, but his tone suggested a little sarcasm. “This is such a wonderful position, I’d like to believe that a lot of people would like to be chairman,” Sonsini said. But asked to describe what makes it such a great job, Sonsini was speechless. And after a few moments of silence, Sonsini suggested typing the words “long pause.” Then Wilson’s top dog said: “Someone once said that being in the position is like being a fire hydrant surrounded by dogs.” What keeps them going is having a say in the firm’s strategic direction. No, really, that’s what they say. “The perks include the ability to have a fair amount of input on the strategic direction of the firm,” said Latham’s Dell. That may be true. After all, Dell doesn’t even get his $400 monthly parking fee comped.

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