Warren Gorrell Jr., CEO emeritus of Hogan Lovells. Photo: Diego M. Radzinschi/ALM.

When Warren Gorrell became the chairman of Hogan & Hartson, in 2001, he assured the firm’s partners he wasn’t going to do anything drastic. He told them they could trust that he would never lead them into a transformational merger. The culture they had built together was too important to the firm and couldn’t be matched, he said.

Eight years later, he changed his tune—and the legal landscape. Gorrell merged Hogan & Hartson with London-based Lovells to create Hogan Lovells, a global behemoth that now boasts more than 2,500 lawyers and $2 billion in revenue, not to mention the hundreds of happy partners who benefited from his about-face.

Gorrell admits that mergers—let alone industry-changing, transcontinental tie-ups like the one that created Hogan Lovells—weren’t part of the firm’s DNA. But the world was changing, and clinging to tradition isn’t part of his DNA. As clients sought to consolidate their law firm partners, he saw an opportunity.

“If you could get a critical mass of high-quality, substantive lawyers who worked together as one team, in all the markets clients care about around the world, that would be a huge differentiator and would be incredibly helpful to the firm and our clients,” Gorrell reflects.

It’s the last part that mattered most to Gorrell.

Neal Katyal, a Hogan Lovells partner and former acting U.S. solicitor general, says when he left government work and joined the firm, he worried that his work wouldn’t have a defined mission. Gorrell helped him discover it.

“He taught me what the mission is, and he lives and breathes it: You bleed for your clients,” Katyal says.

The move worked, Gorrell says, because everyone involved decided that their clients would come first, and the internal process of combining two firms, each with 1,000-plus lawyers, would fall in line.

The merger of equals came during the height of the financial crisis, as many leaders grew defensive, looking to protect what they had. But Gorrell was guided by a longer view and a nagging question: “How are we going to influence what happens to us and make our future?”

As Richard Saltzman sees it, Gorrell’s reversal on the idea of a major merger showed one of his best assets, alongside his “tremendous common sense and raw intelligence:” flexibility. Saltzman, the president and CEO of Colony Capital, began working with Gorrell 30-plus years ago on a series of groundbreaking real estate transactions. Over the years, he’s watched as Gorrell has led by example, showing the type of empathy that makes for a successful lawyer and leader.

“He’s always looking for a way to be amenable and meet people halfway,” Saltzman says.

Katyal sees the same thing in his longtime mentor.

“That’s why the merger worked so well,” Katyal says. “He understood what the Lovells side needed, and the partners’ anxieties and concerns.”

To hear Gorrell tell it, steering a billion-dollar ship through one of the most consequential mergers in the recent history of the legal industry was simply a matter of charting a course and following through with hard work.

“We never wanted to be the largest firm in the world. We were focused on being in the right places at the right time,” Gorrell says, “and it’s worked.”

Advice to young lawyers: “Don’t be afraid to take risks. I think lawyers are viewed naturally as risk-averse, but you can’t just do things the way they’ve been done before. We have huge resources, we work on huge projects, and it’s easy to rely on the way it’s been done before. That’s not the way it works for clients.”

Email: bseal@alm.com