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Cooley Godward is undergoing a management makeover. The firm announced last Friday that Lee Benton is stepping down as firmwide managing partner, effective Feb. 9, after a four-year term at the helm. He will be succeeded by Stephen Neal, who assumes the newly created position of chairman and CEO, and Mark Pitchford, the firm’s first chief operating officer. Management of the firm is “too much for one person to handle,” Benton said. “I was essentially forced to give up my legal practice and still didn’t have enough time to do it.” The new structure puts two litigators in charge of the firm. Neal has been chairman and Pitchford the vice-chairman of Cooley’s litigation department for the last two years. It also divides the leadership responsibilities into strategic planning and day-to-day operations. In addition, the change puts a strong personality at the helm. Neal, a dynamic and nationally recognized litigator, may join the ranks of such well-known San Francisco Bay Area firm leaders as Brobeck, Phleger & Harrison’s Tower Snow Jr., Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe’s Ralph Baxter Jr., and Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati’s Larry Sonsini. All three are known for their strong personalities and for being the public face of their firms. Benton said Cooley’s growth in the last 18 months is what spurred the firm to revise its management structure. During that time the firm has added 278 attorneys for a total of 688. Once the firm’s 10-person management committee decided to make the change, Neal and Pitchford were “really the clear choices,” Benton said. “There was no serious discussion of anyone else.” He added that Neal is “one of the foremost leaders in the firm” and Pitchford, who has been partner-in-charge of the Palo Alto, Calif., office since 1998, has been serving as his right-hand assistant for the past two years. Attorneys outside Cooley voiced approval of the new management team, including former Cooley partner Alan Mendelson, who left the firm eight months ago over disagreements with other leading partners. “Cooley’s moving to a structure where it has a chairperson responsible for setting the strategic vision and a talented young partner in charge of operations makes a great deal of sense to me,” said Mendelson, now a partner in Latham & Watkins’ Menlo Park, Calif., office. “Steve and Mark will make a very fine team,” Mendelson added. “They’ve worked well together running the litigation department and should work well together running the firm.” Peter Pfister, a partner and former chairman of Morrison & Foerster, said Cooley made a good choice in picking Neal to head the firm. “He is very smart and skilled and articulate and combines that exceptional talent with ease in working with a broad range of people.” Neal has represented MoFo in a couple of cases, including a suit over the firm’s handling of the estate of Larry Hillblom, founder of the DHL Worldwide Express air carrier service. NEW TEAM Neal, a star securities litigator, joined Cooley in 1995 from the Los Angeles office of Chicago’s Kirkland & Ellis. Cooley touted his arrival as important for boosting the firm’s reputation in securities and complex litigation. The 51-year-old gained a place on the national stage by winning the release of financier Charles Keating, who was convicted of securities fraud relating to the collapse of Lincoln Savings & Loan. Among numerous other cases, in the late 1980s Neal successfully defended General Motors Corp. in shareholder litigation arising from the company’s $750 million buyout of H. Ross Perot after Perot’s Electronic Data Systems merged with the auto giant. Other clients have included USG Corp., Inland Steel Industries, Genencor International Inc., and Gatx Capital Corp. Neal also is currently representing Scott Co., which has been indicted for allegedly running a minority contracting scam at the San Francisco International Airport. A trial date in that case has been scheduled for May 7. In splitting up management of the firm, Cooley is seeking to make use of Neal’s dynamic personality and strategic skills while keeping him free to continue litigating. “I’m hoping I can still devote 75 percent of my time to practice of the law,” Neal said. As to Cooley’s future, Neal said his goal is to ensure that the firm continues working as a team, recruiting talented young attorneys and maintaining and enhancing Cooley’s core practices. “It’s important to look out two years, five years and 10 years to make sure we are still the firm that the best and brightest will want to come to,” Neal said. This may mean further geographic expansion, he added. “At some point we in all likelihood will be opening an international office,” Benton said. “The question is when and where and whether we will do so as we did in the U.S. — with a combination of our attorneys and laterals — or in an alliance with a firm abroad.” Pitchford, 41, has been with Cooley since he graduated from Santa Clara University School of Law in 1984. In addition to heading up the Palo Alto office and serving as vice chairman of the litigation department, for several years he was in charge of the firm’s recruiting committee. “He is one of the most popular people at the firm,” Benton said. Pitchford’s main clients have included VeriFone Inc., Boole & Babbage and the Electric Power Research Institute, which serves as an R&D arm of power utilities. Pitchford said he will focus on recruitment issues, national firm cohesion and efficiency and making sure “the institution is as vibrant as it needs to be across offices.” Janet Cullum will succeed Neal as chairwoman of the litigation department. The firm has not yet selected someone to take Pitchford’s place as head of the Palo Alto office. Benton, a 30-year Cooley veteran, said he will continue to assist with the firm’s long-term strategic planning as he transitions back into his transactional practice. Benton said he had passed his client base on to younger partners and will now assist with deals as they come in. “No one surpasses Lee in intellect, integrity and diligence,” Neal said. “He has put the firm in a position where any one of a whole bunch of people could step in and do what I’m doing.” Benton has led Cooley through a dramatic growth spurt. In the last four years the firm has more than doubled in size, growing from approximately 300 attorneys in 1996 to 688. Cooley’s gross revenues also soared from $115 million at the end of 1996 to $345 million at the close of last year, making Cooley the No. 4 firm in the Bay Area. Profits per partner have also grown considerably, topping $905,000 in 2000. But the growth of the firm has also created internal pressures. Last year, Cooley endured a wave of high-profile defections. Most notably, Mendelson, whose name was synonymous with Cooley, left as a result of sharp disagreements with partners. While Mendelson has declined to discuss his reasons for leaving, former Cooley attorneys cited differences over the allocation of resources. Another leading partner, Diane Savage, who headed the firm’s information technology practice, also left last year. At the time she cited the relentless pace, client demands and continual loss of associates as factors behind her departure. Neal acknowledged that eight months ago lawyers were working too hard. “The business side was running like crazy, which put strain on individual people,” he said. But he said the workload has eased up and there is now “a remarkable sense of well-being and calm here.”

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