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As law firms continue to grow into increasingly complex billion-dollar businesses, more managing partners are devoting themselves full time to their leadership roles. In fact, as law firms have ballooned from 50-person enterprises to 1,000-plus-lawyer behemoths, managing partners find they are less able to juggle their management jobs with their law practice than firm leaders did a generation ago. At the same time, partners are getting the top job at younger ages — it’s not unheard of for lawyers to become managing partners in their early 40s. The result is that even those who run a firm for years may have long stretches of working years ahead of them after they give up the reins. So rather than dreaming about days at the golf course, many law firm leaders who are close to stepping down are busy plotting the next phase of their career. What is that next step? Some managing partners are eager to return to the full-time practice of law, while others — whose interest in the business of law or management has outpaced their interest in the practice of law — look for opportunities outside the firm. A number of former managing partners, including James Jones of Arnold & Porter, Carl Leonard of Morrison & Foerster, Richard Gary of Thelen Reid & Priest, Jack Walker of Latham & Watkins, and Ron Beard of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, have gone into legal consulting. RISKY BUSINESS For the managing partners who plan to return to practice, taking on the managing partner post can be risky, notes Gary, who chaired San Francisco-based Thelen Reid & Priest from 1992 to 2003. This is especially true if the job is full time, which is increasingly the case in larger law firms. Most lawyers who are offered the top job have significant books of business, but as they become full-time firm leaders they are forced to move their client relationships to other partners in the firm. There’s also an opportunity cost involved. In other words, lawyers often assume the reins of the firm in their 40s and 50s, when they typically have the best business-development opportunities of their careers. “If you have to give up a significant part of your business, it makes you vulnerable,” says Christopher “Kit” Smith, the managing partner of Arent Fox from 1997 to 2002, who moved to Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal shortly after stepping down. Making the transition back to practicing law can be daunting. “As a general rule, the longer a lawyer has been in the managing partner position and the less involvement he or she has had in law practice, the more difficult it is to return to the full-time practice of law,” Gary says. As a result, lawyers offered the managing partner position often start the job with the intention of keeping a toehold in their practice. Smith knew he didn’t want to be a “career managing partner,” he says, so he insisted on continuing to work with his clients even though the managing partner job at Arent Fox was full time. “I wanted to keep up with client contact,” he says, “because I knew when I came out the other side, I would be miserable if I didn’t have clients.” Smith says that while he was managing partner, he devoted about 400 hours a year to his legal practice so that he could maintain key relationships. “I didn’t want to start over.” But many managing partners quickly find that the job is all-consuming. “When I started, I thought I could have a balance,” says Christopher Foley, a trademark and patent lawyer with Finnegan, Henderson, Farabow, Garrett & Dunner, and the firm’s managing partner from 2001 to this past summer. “I realized after a few short months that something had to give.”
LAW FIRM LEADERS: WHERE THEY ARE NOW
Partner & Firm Years History
Bob Glen OdleHogan & Hartson 1989-2001 Odle served two years as managing partner-at-large after stepping down in 2001. He retired in 2003.
Michael HelferWilmerHale 1995-1998 Helfer returned to practice for two years before leaving Wilmer for Nationwide Insurance. He’s now Citigroup’s general counsel.
James SandmanArnold & Porter 1995-2005 Sandman returned to practice in 2005 and is currently a senior partner in the firm’s toxic tort and product liability practice.
Jonathan BlakeCovington & Burling 1996-2001 Blake continues to practice with the firm and is now chairman of the technology, communications, and media practice group.
Peter MullenSkadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom 1981-1994 Mullen became of counsel to the firm when he stepped down. He now devotes much of his time to pro bono initiatives.
Angelo ArcadipaneDickstein Shapiro 1992-2003 Arcadipane served as managing partner emeritus for the firm for two years before retiring.
J.A. (Lon) BouknightSteptoe & Johnson 1998-2003 Bouknight is now the executive vice president and general counsel for Edison International.
Mary CranstonPillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman 1999-2006 Cranston is relinquishing the reins in December and will be a senior partner with the firm.
Jack WalkerLatham & Watkins 1988-1994 Walker returned to his tax practice at Latham until 2003, when he joined the Zeughauser Group as a consultant.
Christopher FoleyFinnegan, Henderson, Farabow, Garrett & Dunner 2001-2006 After Foley stepped down in July, he went back to his trademark and patent practice.

James Jones, managing partner of Arnold & Porter from 1986 to 1995 and now a consultant with Hildebrandt International, says he first took the job of managing partner on the condition that he could continue to practice half time, but that arrangement only lasted six to eight months. An even bigger impediment than not having the time to practice, Jones says, was the fact that he didn’t have the flexibility to be available to his clients whenever they needed him. “I couldn’t necessarily jump on a plane to Kansas City if a client wanted me to,” he says. Although a managing partner’s ability to maintain some practice is largely tied to the size and scale of a law firm’s operations, the top job is not full time at every large firm. And many large firms have more than one leader — a managing partner responsible for day-to-day operations and a chair focusing on client relations, who serves as the external ambassador of the firm and considers the firm’s strategy from a “35,000-foot” perspective, says Jones. Although at many law firms the managing partner job is full time, that’s not necessarily the case for the chairman. Hogan & Hartson overhauled its management structure in 2001. When current Chairman J. Warren Gorrell Jr. was offered the top job, the firm evolved from a system in which a managing partner and administrative partner ran the firm to a corporate-style management structure with a chairman and five managing partners who have firmwide responsibilities. Gorrell says the firm changed its structure both as a response to his desire to continue practicing while in a leadership position and in recognition of the fact that a firm its size needed more structure than just one managing partner and an administrative partner could provide. GRACE PERIOD Rebuilding an active law practice can be a “real serious chore,” Gary says. In light of this, many law firms now include provisions in compensation packages that protect the managing partner’s compensation level for two to three years after they step down, Jones says. This “grace period” gives managing partners some breathing room while they rebuild their practice. “If firms want the best people in the managing partner position,” Gary says, “it’s important that they take the extra step to facilitate the managing partner’s re-entry into practice.” Although firms are getting more thoughtful on how to structure the top job, consultants say, the ease or difficulty of rebuilding a practice can depend a lot on the firm’s culture. Finnegan’s Foley, who stepped down in July, says he has been able to rebuild his practice quickly in large part because of the support he received from his partners, who helped him reposition himself. He now has a practice similar to the one he had before taking the managing partner job, he says, albeit with new clients. Some of that practice includes clients he’s brought in, but he’s also had work referred to him by his partners. But he acknowledges that rebuilding his practice would have been quite a challenge in a firm “where partners hoard clients and where profitability is uniquely tied to an �eat what you kill’ formula.” Rebuilding a practice also can be easier for managing partners who have an internal audience for their work, says Ron Beard, a consultant with the Zeughauser Group, a California-based legal consulting firm. For instance, a first-class litigator or tax lawyer can more easily get business as a referral from other partners than can corporate partners who usually are the relationship partners for clients. Beard served as the managing partner of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher from 1991 to 1997 and as its chairman from 1991 to 2001. Jack Walker, one of Beard’s partners at the Zeughauser Group, agrees. Walker, a tax lawyer who stepped down as Latham & Watkins’ managing partner in 1994 and returned to practice until he retired in 2003, says his business came mostly from other partners at the firm who had the primary relationship with the client. WHO’S YOUR FRIEND? And managing partners who step down are faced with even more challenges than the question of finding new clients. They also must assimilate back into the firm on a personal level. “If you have been at the top level of an organization, it’s hard to go back to the assembly line,” Jones says. “You find that a lot of the friends you had weren’t your friends, but friends of the office of the chairman.” A lot of managing partners feel anxious about moving on. “The hardest part is the ego,” Walker says. “You’re not consulted on the hot issues of the day anymore, and maybe you’re not as good as your peers in lawyering.” Managing partners also can have difficulty redefining their relationship with their partners when they step down. “It’s a pressure-packed position,” Walker says. “You are telling people things they don’t want to hear.” Walker says he stepped down because he thought the firm would benefit from a fresh leader. “I had hammered enough,” says Walker, explaining that he presided over Latham during a difficult period when the firm had to tighten its operations as a response to the recession of the early 1990s, which hit the firm’s corporate-focused practice hard. During that time, the firm pushed out unproductive partners, laid off associates, and restructured its pay scale and billing rates. The interpersonal dynamic can be more of an issue for a law firm leader than a corporate executive because of the close contact managing partners have with their partners. “Unlike a CEO, who faces their shareholders once a year in a very orchestrated fashion,” Jones says, “managing partners face their owners every day. They put their feet up on your desk and tell you what you are doing wrong on a daily basis.” And there’s the conventional wisdom that managing lawyers can be like herding cats. “It’s challenging to manage professionals,” says Peter Thompson, the managing partner of Ross, Dixon & Bell from 1996 to 2003. “You have to work hard to create consensus.” How much of an issue this is can depend on a number of factors, such as where the firm is in its growth cycle, whether it just merged, or how fractured the partnership is, says Sonnenschein’s Smith. “Very few people say thank you, and a great many complain.” TIME FOR SOMETHING NEW At the same time, the top job also can awaken new interests in someone who might not have had the chance to run a business before. A growing number of managing partners leave their firms to pursue new opportunities at other firms or find a new line of work. “I had a powerful itch to do something new,” says Thompson, who formed his own firm, Thompson, Loss & Judge, with a few other lawyers from Ross, Dixon five months after stepping down from the managing partner job in 2003. He explains that going back to his full-time practice at Ross, Dixon had felt like turning back the clock. Hildebrandt’s Jones says Arnold & Porter was generous in its willingness to provide him protection to rebuild his practice, but after almost a decade in management, his interests had changed. After stepping down, Jones spent five years as vice chairman and chief legal officer for APCO Worldwide, a public affairs firm originally founded by Arnold & Porter; did a brief stint as the president of a Palo Alto, Calif.-based Internet start-up; and then joined Hildebrandt in 2001. Gary, who had been away from his practice for more than a decade in Thelen Reid’s top job, says that after 11 years in management, he had become more interested in the business of law than in rebuilding his corporate law practice. Gary formed his own legal consulting firm in September 2003, a few months after stepping down. Tony Williams, Clifford Chance’s managing partner from 1997 to 2000, echoes these sentiments. “I thought about going back to corporate practice,” he says, “but I had done that — I didn’t feel like I had anything left to prove.” Looking for a new challenge, Williams took the helm of Andersen Legal, which was accounting firm Arthur Andersen’s nascent legal arm. “It was a great opportunity to work on a new business model,” Williams says. When that shop closed down after Arthur Andersen’s indictments, Williams set up his own consulting firm in London in October 2002. And now, with the perspective they have gained from being in the hot seat, a number of these former managing partners are consulting with law firms on how to better structure their management and how to groom the next generation of law firm leaders. “You don’t learn how to practice law in law school,” Gary says, “and you don’t learn how to be a law firm leader while practicing law.”


Alexia Garamfalvi can be contacted at [email protected].

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