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Pepper Hamilton may have broken the glass ceiling on Monday that many say seems to hang over leadership positions in large law firms, particularly in Philadelphia. The firm elected the leader of its pharmaceutical and medical litigation and counseling practice, Nina M. Gussack, as chairwoman of its executive committee, taking over for Barry M. Abelson. Abelson had been running Pepper Hamilton the past 12 years. Gussack, a career-long Pepper Hamilton attorney, had previously spent six years on the executive committee until her term ended last year. She was re-elected this year and then elected chairwoman by the committee. “I look forward to moving Pepper to a new level of national and international prominence,” Gussack said in a statement. “Our litigation and corporate expertise, our deep knowledge of our clients’ industries and our creative counseling will continue to propel the firm forward in a global marketplace. These assets will ensure that Pepper is seen as a ‘go-to’ firm for clients seeking the best solutions to their thorniest legal challenges and most complex business transactions.” Gussack is out of town and was unavailable for comment Monday. Sandra Mannix of Abelson Legal Search said Gussack is “really a name player” who is an “exceptional attorney” who has been recognized in the community for her work. The only big difference between Abelson and Gussack’s abilities and books of business, she said, is that Gussack is a litigator and Abelson is a business attorney. Michael Coleman of Coleman Nourian said Gussack could be described as one of the firms’s “very largest rainmakers.” “It would not be in the firm’s best interest to have Nina’s practice diminish,” he said, adding that Pepper Hamilton probably has a structure in place to support her practice while she serves as chairwoman. Firm executive partner Robert E. Heideck, who was recently re-elected to that role through 2008, said that, knowing Gussack, it will probably mean her just adding more hours to her day. Coleman said the firm is used to placing rainmakers in the position, with Abelson coming before Gussack and former Pepper Hamilton partner John Harkins — now of Harkins Cunningham — coming before Abelson. Heideck said he doesn’t expect any disruption from the leadership change because both Abelson and Gussack are “highly motivated. “While they’re different people with different styles, they’re two of the most prepared, committed people I’ve ever met,” he said. Their difference in practice areas may be cause for tweaking the job description, Coleman said. Pepper Hamilton has long expressed its interest in a potential merger, something Heideck said the firm would still be amenable to. Abelson is a mergers and acquisitions attorney, and Gussack a products liability litigator. Coleman said he wouldn’t expect Gussack to have the same skill set or approach to merger candidates as Abelson. While Abelson may have been the first to meet with potential merger parnters, Coleman said Gussack might be brought in to a subsequent meeting once others at the firm have checked things out. He said those are normal accommodations made to the chairperson role as attorneys with different skill sets take over the position. Michael T. Scott of Reed Smith has a products liability practice similar to Gussack’s and knows her from his time at Pepper Hamilton. He said she is a great lawyer who has built a great practice. “She’ll be a great chairperson if she can find the time,” he said, half jokingly. Gussack had proven her leadership abilities while at Pepper Hamilton, Scott said, pointing to the “loyal team” she has built to work with her. Because Pepper Hamilton has always been a democratic firm, Scott said the fact that she was elected as chairwoman speaks to a firmwide respect of her leadership abilities. Gussack has the abilty to serve as chairwoman for six years, but the position is technically re-elected each year by the executive committee, Abselson said. When Abelson started in the position in 1995, the firm allowed for two consecutive one-year terms as chairperson. That was amended right before Abelson’s second year concluded to allow for a six-year term. Twice after that term was set to end, the partnership requested that Abelson stay on for three more years. Upon the beginning of the second three-year extension in 2004, Abelson said it would be his last. “The reality is, I’ve had two jobs for 12 years,” he said. During his tenure, Abelson said his practice grew substantially, and he wanted to get back to practicing law full time and spending more time with his family. His clients include public entities, private equity and venture funds and venture-backed private companies, he said. During Abelson’s tenure as chairman, Pepper Hamilton had gone through several phases of expansion. The firm has opened offices in Pittsburgh; Princeton, N.J.; Orange County, Calif.; and Boston. It has grown from 274 lawyers to 450 lawyers. Its gross revenues have climbed from $81 million to $259 million for 2006. Abelson said Gussack is committed to continuing that growth. “Our objective is to continue to grow substantially in our size and our geographic reach,” he said. That will include, he said, growth in Boston and New York as well as growth opportunities that help the firm resemble in geography the national practices it now has. While Pepper Hamilton becomes the first and only large Philadelphia firm to have a woman at the helm, Abelson said “talent is what carries the day” at the firm. He said Pepper Hamilton has a long history of women in leadership positions. Litigation partner Barbara W. Mather served as executive partner of the firm from 1993 to 1994 and currently serves as co-chairwoman of the firm’s litigation and dispute resolution department. Women lead the firm’s practices in antitrust, insurance, investment funds, media and communications, real estate and tax. Heideck said Gussack was the best candidate, and the fact that she was a woman made no difference. Gussack’s practice is concentrated in civil litigation, with a primary emphasis on the defense of pharmaceutical and medical device companies regarding marketed products, investigational new drugs, medical devices and over-the-counter drug products. She also counsels clients on clinical trial compliance, FDA compliance in promotional activities and Lanham Act claims in the pharmaceutical industry. Gussack first worked at Pepper Hamilton in 1978 as a summer associate and officially joined the firm in 1979 after graduating from Villanova University School of Law. She made partner in 1987.

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