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A year ago, when Irwin Heller decided that his time as managing partner of Mintz, Levin, Cohn, Ferris, Glovsky and Popeo was up, he began to mull over who would succeed him as head of the Boston-based firm. What resulted was not a short list of potential solo leaders, but a pool of talented 40-somethings, each with different strengths that could benefit the firm. In April, four members of that group will assume duties as managing directors, in a move that reflects a quiet shift at an increasing number of firms away from the diffuse decision-making process of large executive committees. The team will be headed by the firm’s chairman, R. Robert Popeo. Mintz Levin disbanded its old executive committee in favor of a 15-member policy committee, which includes Heller, Popeo, and the managing directors, who will advise the committee, but can’t supersede its vote. “There was always the idea that I was practicing law with my partners, that it was a noble profession that served society,” Heller says. “It’s become more of a business.” Others, too, have taken notice of the change. Washington, D.C.-based Howrey Simon Arnold & White; Hogan & Hartson; and Piper Rudnick; and Philadelphia’s Morgan, Lewis & Bockius are a few of the many firms that have in the last few years spread firmwide management duties among a group of partners or nonlawyer executives. It’s a slightly radical notion at many law firms, which as partnerships have a long history of democratic rule. To be sure, equity partners, as owners of the business, still have a big say in how most firms are run. But a new trend sees many rethinking how they are organized. Legal strategist Peter Zeughauser says while there isn’t just one structure followed by firms retooling management roles, many of the bigger firms are trying to turn firmwide decision making into a leaner, quicker process. That is often accomplished, Zeughauser says, by choosing a small group of partners and charging each with responsibility over a discrete area, such as client development or operations management, and then vesting them with the authority to make decisions. “They’re critical areas for firms, but there are things that don’t get done or don’t get done very well with only one person,” says Newport Beach, Calif.-based Zeughauser. “The idea of running a $400 million to $600 million business with minimal management is outdated.” Nevertheless, it is difficult for some lawyers to reconcile the idea of their firm as a modern business, and not as an old-fashioned professional association, says Lisa Smith, a Hildebrant Inc. consultant based in D.C. And despite a swell of appreciation for sound leadership, particularly in light of the dramatic dissolutions of firms like San Francisco-based Brobeck, Phleger & Harrison and accounting giant Arthur Andersen, some attorneys still consider a more corporate approach to law firm management with trepidation. Those who can’t stomach the additional layers of management move to smaller firms where there’s ready access to decision making, Smith notes. Even some larger firms have stuck with a traditional chairman and committee-centered strategy. At Covington & Burling, for example, most decisions are still being made by the entire partnership, says Mitchell Dolin, a partner in the firm’s home office in Washington, D.C. “A collegial, consensus-building approach is not inconsistent with effective and, when necessary, dynamic leadership,” Dolin says. CONSENSUS RULE When Michael Kelly, managing partner of Morgan Lewis’ D.C. office and firmwide partner for legal personnel, graduated from law school in 1974, many firms were managed by consensus. In 1999, Morgan Lewis became one of the first large national firms to replace its governing board with a chair and three firmwide managing partners. The partners, including Kelly, Philip Werner and Thomas Sharbaugh, were appointed by Chairman Francis Milone. Werner manages the firm’s finances; Sharbaugh, the firm’s operations. The change meant doing away with Morgan Lewis’ five-person executive committee and 17-member governing board, which had run the firm for decades. “There’s nothing wrong with consensus,” Kelly says. “But the world turns a lot more quickly these days, and you don’t always have time to build consensus.” Kelly, 54, is careful to emphasize that despite agreeing to be managed by a group of directors, Morgan Lewis’ 400 partners haven’t forfeited their ability to steer the 1,200-lawyer firm. “Our lawyers have said, ‘You are accountable for decisions, but if you fail, you’re gone in a heartbeat,’ ” he says. So far, the partnership has been pleased with the guidance of the firmwide managing partners, Kelly says, but he acknowledges that the team management model could be a temporary one. “We didn’t do it with the expectation that it would work forever,” Kelly says. “When we become a lot larger, we’ll have to rethink it.” While the firm doesn’t have plans to change now, Kelly says that as more lawyers are added it might be necessary to bring on yet more managers, although there is no intention to return to governance by “unwieldy” committee. Howrey Simon’s managing partner, Robert Ruyak, says a group of nonlawyers have helped to streamline his firm’s decision making. Between 1999 and 2001, Howrey Simon hired what Ruyak likes to refer to as his five “c-levels”: chief officers for finance, operations, information, marketing, and human resources. Ruyak says this allowed the firm to break out of a mold in which lawyers handled all of the firm’s business, even if they weren’t particularly proficient at it. The firm still has an executive committee made up of Ruyak and five partners from across practice groups. But even that is pared down: In early 2000, the executive committee replaced a 21-member policy committee and a nine-member managing committee. To Ruyak, it’s simple: His c-level executives deal with day-to-day execution of logistical tasks and his executive committee works on policy for the 570-lawyer firm. “If I want to bring a lateral partner into the firm I don’t need to take a vote of the partners,” Ruyak says. “The executive committee has the ability to make major decisions.” It’s more like a corporation, and it’s worked well, according to Ruyak. “It’s allowed us in three years to do some pretty extraordinary things where we didn’t have to go back and labor over a myriad of concerns and opinions,” he says. “It’s largely responsible for our success.” For 35 years, Covington & Burling has been governed by a management committee, which has expanded, not shrunk, and now counts seven members. A more recent addition is a three-member executive committee that includes the firm chairman. Dolin, the D.C. partner, says the change has helped 500-lawyer Covington move fast on personnel matters. When hiring a lateral partner last year, he says, Covington went from initial contact, to partnership vote, to first day of work within about 30 days. That process was quicker than usual, Dolin says, because a number of the partners knew and had worked with the lateral candidate for many years. In most instances the process is longer, in part because of deliberation amongst the partnership. He also points to Covington’s merger with 60-lawyer, New York-based Howard Smith & Levin in 1999. Smith of Hildebrant says there’s still a powerful thrust from firms like Covington to maintain management by committee. But she adds that the firms angling to whittle down large committees in the hopes of achieving more-nimble decision making might be met with a warmer reception today. “This is not necessarily seen to be as evil as it might have been 10 years ago,” Smith says. MINTZ LEVIN’S JOURNEY The way Mintz Levin’s Heller sees it, law firms traditionally have been undermanaged, a point that became apparent during his six-year tenure as managing partner — a time when the 450-lawyer firm doubled in size. The 57-year-old Heller found himself constantly checking in with partners who wanted to have a say in firm decisions, shuttling between five offices, and mediating lengthy policy discussions. After this experience, Heller realized that being the only go-to man for a quarter-billion-dollar-a-year business didn’t make much sense, he says. Heller concedes that with the adoption of Mintz Levin’s new management structure, partners will yield some of the control held by their cohorts in less centralized firms. Many lawyers tend to think of themselves as “individual entrepreneurial operators” Heller says. The firm’s new structure seeks to reduce that mentality, going for a no-man-is-an-island approach designed to foster a flow of talent across practice areas and offices. Beyond the hope for firmwide synergy, though, is a more basic requirement that lawyers accustomed to ample autonomy adapt to a more vertical system of governance. Heller, who will return this spring to full-time practice at Mintz Levin, is well-schooled in the attorney’s ethos of independence. “Lawyers, when they get a memo, are just as likely to call up the president and say, ‘I don’t understand why you want me to do this’ — or give you six other ideas of how to do it,” says Heller. Cherie Kiser, 44, a D.C. partner specializing in telecommunications law, is part of the new Mintz Levin team as managing director for firm integration. She says most partners aren’t concerned about not having their say. “I don’t think many of them feel like they’re giving much up,” Kiser says, adding that partners are responsible for appointing the firm policy committee, which in turn designates the managing directors. “They’re still really in control of the firm management.”

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