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The businesswoman who pushed Heller Ehrman into the modern era � sometimes against its will � has retired. During her nine-year tenure as the firm’s executive director, Phyllis Gardner is credited with transforming the old-fashioned West Coast law firm into a modern business as the firm exploded in size and revenue. “She was central to the success and growth of Heller Ehrman, and I mean that sincerely,” said Barry Levin, who served as chairman from 1999 to 2005. Since Gardner joined the firm in 1998, Heller’s revenue has grown from $169 million to $507 million; headcount went from 400 to 700; and new offices were added in New York, China and London. Though not a lawyer, Gardner sat on the powerful executive and policy committees and helped Heller plot its global future. She also ran the day-to-day business of the firm, ushering in the era of outsourcing and automated business intake � whether lawyers and staff liked it or not. “She brought discipline to our internal organization,” said Matthew Larrabee, Heller chairman. “She changed it into a 21st century organization from one that wasn’t.” Gardner, 61, explained that it was time to move on. “I’ve been there for nine years, which is a long time,” she said. Also, opening the firm’s new London office earlier this year in an “incredible time frame” was “exhausting” and gave her pause to consider her options. Though she announced her intentions in the spring, a replacement has yet to be named. The firm is conducting a nationwide search for a new executive director. “We’re looking for someone who would have the same strengths and vision as Phyllis,” said Robert Hubbell, firmwide managing partner. As law firms become more like businesses, businesspeople have become more important to firms. The going rate for an executive director or a chief operating officer at a big firm is anywhere from $300,000 to $1 million, according to a recent survey by Law Firm Inc., a Recorder sibling publication. Gardner joined Heller just as the firm was beginning to size up its future in the era of the modern megafirm. Gardner � who terms herself “irrepressible” and whom colleagues call “strong-willed” � made sure the firm didn’t fall behind the curve. She introduced outsourcing, getting rid of the in-house staff who did copying, faxing and records management in favor of outside companies. “It was mixed in terms of how it was viewed, but in the long run, it has provided us the levels of flexibility we need,” Gardner said. She also organized, streamlined and laid bare the firm’s business intake system. Conflict checks go much quicker � thanks to specially configured software � letting lawyers easily get approval for new work. It has also meant that people know exactly what business lawyers are doing � a sometimes unwelcome measure of the modern lawyer. On a larger scale, she helped plan Heller’s strategy around the globe, opening new offices and beefing up existing ones. “It is no easy task to go into another country, let alone another part of the world, and open an office,” Hubbell said. “She did it repeatedly and successfully in Hong Kong and Beijing and London and she also did it for us in New York and Washington, D.C.” Heller lawyers acknowledge that Gardner’s job wasn’t an easy one. “It’s a thankless job, and I think she did it very well,” said Stephen Bomse, a Heller antitrust veteran who also sat on the policy committee. “It’s like college dean: You’re answering to a constituency that has inherently inconsistent interests, and you’re almost inevitably going to make someone unhappy, and she walked that line very well.” Gardner previously served as an executive officer at a Department of Justice division and executive director and CEO at Washington, D.C., firm Steptoe & Johnson. She said she doesn’t know what she’ll do next, but she’s pleased with everything that was accomplished at Heller. “It’s a lot,” she said. “In a lot of partnerships and law firms, I probably wouldn’t have gotten so much latitude.” She also got some gratitude. Gardner was honored at the firmwide retreat in the spring and she and her husband were given tickets to anywhere in the world. The executive officers that reported to her also gave her a plaque with a bronze pair of running shoes, because “I always say, ‘Get those running shoes on,’” she said. Asked to compare Heller as a business in 1998, when she first arrived, with today, she laughed and said, “There’s no comparison � we didn’t even have [firm] telephone books then.”

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