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Granted, most firms are not happy when a partner — a former chairman, no less — leaves with lawyers and clients in tow. But given the way that Brobeck, Phleger & Harrison has treated Tower Snow, Jr., you’d think that he’d been revealed as part of Osama bin Laden’s inner circle. Whether or not Snow deserved the equivalent of a professional kneecapping for defecting to Clifford Chance, Brobeck’s hasty action against its former chairman looks like a bad strategic move. Too many of its decisions were motivated by anger and vengeance — the kind of behavior that lawyers caution business clients to avoid. By the time Snow announced last October that he would not run for chairman again, the tide had turned against him at Brobeck. In four years at the helm, Snow had pushed the San Francisco-based firm to unprecedented riches, with profits per partner cracking $1 million in 2000. During the boom, his partners enjoyed the ride, and approved massive expansion efforts, as Brobeck piled on lawyers and real estate. But when the technology market tanked and partners’ checks shrank, an increasing number of partners voiced their irritation with Snow’s authoritarian style and his policies; in particular, his refusal to lay off associates. Snow’s forceful personality evokes strong feelings, and simmering resentments came to a boil. For some partners, seeing Snow give up the reins wasn’t enough. They didn’t want to give the controversial leader a graceful exit, and last fall started a petition drive to recall him before his term expired at the end of January. Snow stepped down in November, saying he didn’t want to be a lame-duck leader. That tense situation could hardly make a former chairman feel like spending the rest of his career at a firm — especially when one of the petition drive leaders, San Diego tax partner Richard Parker, was made the firm’s new managing partner. Over the next few months, Snow says, he became increasingly dissatisfied with Brobeck’s new management, led by Los Angeles litigator Richard Odom. Not only did the firm convince 82 associates to take buyout offers and lay off more than 50 others, but, Snow claims, there was a “seismic shift” in the firm’s strategic focus and culture, including a move away from a technology emphasis. (The firm insists this isn’t so.) In January, Snow called Clifford Chance, and by April the talks had turned serious. Later that month, Brenda Sandburg of The Recorder, an American Lawyer affiliate in San Francisco, reported rumors that Snow might go to the British firm. Brobeck chairman Odom says that he asked Snow in early May about this, and Snow told him the rumors were false. Snow says that’s not so: “Odom never asked me specifically about Clifford Chance, but I underscored to him that I had talked to firms and was considering my options.” (Snow adds, “I would be happy — delighted — to sit down with a polygraph test and see who’s telling the truth.”) On Thursday, May 16, Brobeck partners read in the British press that Clifford Chance had announced that its talks with Snow’s group were over, and that as many as 35 Brobeck partners had been considered. Snow’s detractors saw an opening to cripple him and leave him stranded without a firm. Moving quickly, a group of partners circulated a petition the next day for Snow’s ouster. Even partners on vacation and overseas were contacted. Within five hours the margin for expulsion had been reached. A Brobeck partner can be expelled, with or without cause, by a vote of partners holding more than 60 percent of the firm’s equity. Parker says that roughly 75 percent of the equity, and a similar percentage of the partners, wanted Snow out. By then, some partners’ animus toward Snow verged on the irrational. “The only way to deal with Tower is with force and a two-by-four,” proclaims San Francisco partner Roderick McLeod, who voted to expel Snow. He adds, “The partners wanted his head on a platter.” Snow was never informed that the firm was considering this drastic step. Brobeck management has attempted to give the impression that Snow repeatedly rebuffed their attempts to reach him. When pressed on the details, Odom and Parker are vague. The only messages Odom can specify that he sent Snow during this time are an e-mail and voicemail that he left on May 16, the day before Snow’s ouster, “telling him it was extremely important that he contact us on the seventeenth.” Snow was in fact in London, talking to Clifford Chance, and claims that he was not checking his office messages because he was busy wrapping up his trip. Snow learned of his fate when he stepped off a United Airlines nonstop flight from London to San Francisco around 6:30 p.m. on May 17 and an airline employee handed him a letter from Odom. By that time, the firm had already dispatched a press release announcing Snow’s termination. Sometime during that day a key was broken off in the lock of Snow’s office door, preventing anyone from entering. But if Snow’s ex-partners thought that they had critically wounded him, they were wrong. Less than two weeks later, Clifford Chance announced that Snow would join the firm after all. It had also extended offers to at least 21 Brobeck partners. At press time 15 had given Brobeck their 30-day notice. Odom says that the firm expelled Snow because his actions were unacceptable. “Here was a former chairman of the firm out taking action he had to know was obviously designed to strike a blow at the institution,” Odom says. One expert on corporate crisis management says it’s understandable that firm leaders in such a situation might react emotionally. “To have a rational approach to somebody trying to rape your business is hard to ask,” says Harvard Business School’s Stephen Greyser. But by ousting Snow, Brobeck found itself in a scenario even worse than what it had feared: a former chairman released from his fiduciary duties to Brobeck who was free to recruit lawyers and clients immediately — and who was very, very angry. Snow notes that, since his ouster, “nobody [in management] to this day has ever talked to me.” Snow insists that he didn’t breach his fiduciary duties to Brobeck. He says he never tried to solicit clients, associates, or staff while at the firm and didn’t divulge confidential firm information to Clifford Chance. Snow’s supporters maintain that Brobeck acted so rashly that it hurt itself more than it hurt Snow. Besides freeing up Snow, those actions reinforce the notion of Brobeck as a bare-knuckles place. The drama it created drew the press like flies. “I think what they’ve done with Tower doesn’t serve anyone’s interest,” says Karen Johnson-McKewan, a Brobeck partner who planned to join Snow at Clifford Chance at the end of June. “It was an emotional reaction. It was not sensible and it was not strategic.” Johnson-McKewan, who had been managing partner of Brobeck’s San Francisco office, says she’s been stunned by what’s happened: “I’ve never seen anything like this before in my life. … It’s shameful.” One Brobeck client and former partner expresses a similar reaction. “It’s just baffling,” says Thomas Bevilacqua, a partner at ArrowPath Venture Capital and a Snow partisan. “I would think that with a former chairman who had led his firm to unparalleled levels of profits and success, out of respect for what he had done for the institution, this whole episode would be handled differently.” Bevilacqua adds, “It’s like a small town that’s had this strong autocratic mayor pushing people to build a better place. And the people are now looking for a way to be vindictive.”

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