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For a big-firm leader, Tower Snow Jr., was different. The handsome, charismatic and publicity-conscious chairman of Brobeck, Phleger & Harrison had a knack for generating headlines for his firm. Love him or hate him, he raised Brobeck’s profile — and profits. When Snow, who has personified the San Francisco-based firm for the past four years, announced in October that he would step down as chairman when his term ended Jan. 31, the speculation mill buzzed: Was he pressured to resign? Had he painted himself into a corner with his insistence that the firm would not lay off associates on his watch? In an interview with The American Lawyer, Snow maintains that he was simply worn out from the job, which he says was sucking up 4,000 hours a year. “Not much else fits into your life. It’s not a level of sacrifice I was willing to continue to make,” he says, looking tired but characteristically poised as he sits in a conference room framed by a grand view of the San Francisco Bay. No doubt the job was taking a toll on the 54-year-old leader. But the story isn’t that simple. Discontent had been rising at Brobeck, and the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11 set in motion a behind-the-scenes political drama that might have been pulled from the plot of a “Survivor” finale. On Sept. 11, Brobeck’s operations committee — which consists of office and practice group leaders — had gathered in Broomfield, Colo., for one of its periodic meetings. With the tragedy unfolding back east, the meeting was canceled, and a dozen or so Brobeck partners, including Snow, piled into cars for long drives back to California. During these marathon trips the conversations in some of the cars turned to whether it was time for Snow to go. As a result of these discussions, Los Angeles partner Richard Odom, who heads Brobeck’s complex litigation group, and who was in the caravan, called Snow the following week and told him that he would run for chairman. “There became an increasing number of partners who were disagreeing with [Snow's] positions,” explains Odom, who says that those partners had asked him to run. During his four-year term, Snow had doubled profits per partner, from an average of $590,000 in 1998 to $1.17 million last year, and fiercely marketed Brobeck as the premier technology law firm. Snow says that the firm may have its second-best year ever in 2001. But this year’s profits have plummeted from last year’s record levels, and Snow’s response to this economic downturn has triggered questions about his leadership. Even though Snow acknowledges that 900-lawyer Brobeck is carrying 15 percent overcapacity in its ranks of associates, he refuses to lay people off. (The firm has offered voluntary leaves, with benefits, to some associates.) Other long-standing policies are also under fire. A rule docking partners’ pay for overdue receivables was viewed in some corners as excessively harsh in this economy. Snow also had pushed partners to reject work that didn’t command top rates — a difficult proposition for certain practice groups. And some believed that the firm should scale back its emphasis on technology. There was also the matter of Snow’s management style. “He’s not always the best at taking dissent and considering it,” admits one Snow supporter. Snow says Odom’s planned run didn’t affect his decision. He had been thinking of stepping down for some time for family reasons, and Sept. 11 clarified his priorities. When Snow broke the news that he would not run again, at an Oct. 17 partner meeting in San Francisco, he received an appreciative standing ovation. He left immediately afterward for a vacation. The transition seemed orderly enough. Until Snow returned. On Oct. 31, the day he got back, Snow had one of his regular meetings with associates and paralegals. Not surprisingly, questions about layoffs popped up. Snow says that he simply repeated what he has said all along: He believes layoffs would not be in the best interests of the firm or its people. He also said that support within the firm for his no-layoffs stance had eroded in the past few months. When pressed, he estimated that there was a 50-50 likelihood that people would be let go in the near future. One associate who attended the meeting said that Snow wasn’t in his usual upbeat mood: “He appeared frustrated and sad.” After the meeting, rumors flew that Snow had let loose with some inflammatory remarks to associates. According to one lawyer who heard this rumor, the scuttlebutt was that Snow had railed that any partner who would lay off associates during an economic downturn was morally bankrupt. Snow insists that he said nothing of the sort, and this same associate who attended the meeting backs him up. “That’s categorically untrue,” the young lawyer says. Still, a small group of partners became so agitated at what they thought Snow had said that, two days later, they started circulating a petition that would accelerate the election and force Snow out early. San Diego partner Richard Parker, who heads Brobeck’s tax group and who was involved in the petition discussions, calls it a one-day phenomenon. “Things got charged, then they calmed down. … Clearer heads prevailed,” says Parker, who is often mentioned as a candidate to be Odom’s managing partner. He adds, “It’s a difficult time. We’re dealing with these succession issues, and sometimes it gets personal.” Snow, along with managing partner James Burns Jr., is still slated to step down at the end of January. At press time the prospect of layoffs at Brobeck remained unclear, although certainly a possibility. One Brobeck partner is mystified by these machinations against Snow. “He’s not doing anything that ought to be creating a crisis mentality. … Why this all can’t be graceful is beyond my imagination.” Snow maintains that he doesn’t concern himself with these plots bubbling below. “I don’t worry about it,” he says. Snow, a litigator who joined Brobeck in 1995 as a lateral from Shearman & Sterling, sounds as if he doesn’t know what he’ll do next. He has no desire to return to a full-time law practice. It’s hard to imagine that Snow will come away from this experience feeling warm and fuzzy about the new management. If he ends up leaving, that would be a big loss for Brobeck. “Whether or not you think [Snow] should be running the firm, you have to acknowledge he was the best business developer the firm had,” notes one partner. “You don’t want to lose him as an asset or alienate him. … Now we’ve blown that, and that was really stupid.”

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