Akerman announced on Monday that its former longtime chairman and CEO, Andrew Smulian, is replacing firm head David Spector after less than a year and is once again assuming leadership of the firm, a move that came as a shock to the legal community.
Spector’s ascension to the top spot at Akerman had been heralded as a generational shift. Smulian, 72, was the 35th attorney to join the firm’s Miami office in 1995. Before Spector, 47, took over in February, he had been the CEO for a decade.
Spector, who will retain his board membership, will return to the firm’s fraud and recovery practice.
The change seemed sudden: As recently as Saturday when Smulian was honored at the Institute of Contemporary Art Gala, there was no mention of his return to the leadership position.
Jeff Lowe, global practice leader at the recruiting firm Major, Lindsey & Africa, said moves such as these are uncommon, but not unheard of. He pointed to Crowell & Moring’s decision to replace its former leader Angela Styles after just two years on the job.
Lowe, who said he doesn’t know the internal machinations of Akerman, noted that a change in leadership may not have much of an effect on a firm’s day-to-day operations, especially at large firms such as Akerman. But CEOs and firm chairmen are responsible for long-term strategy. And in this volatile legal landscape where competition is zero sum and clients are transient, the long view is crucial to the success of a big law firm such as Akerman, he said.
“Firms that coasted on their reputations for years are now exposed,” Lowe said. “When we had a recession, demand dropped and clients realized they had the upper hand. They have almost all of the bargaining power now and they may have it forever.”
Under Smulian’s leadership, Akerman saw electric growth, with its revenue and head count rising 63 percent and 42 percent, respectively, since 2011. In recent years Akerman has been aggressively expanding nationwide. As of this summer, Akerman was the second-largest firm in Florida, and boasts more than 700 lawyers and 24 offices in major cities such as New York, Los Angeles and Chicago.
Debora Montero, regional vice president with Robert Half Legal, said successful leadership often makes former CEOs a “known commodity” in the legal world.
“Law firms want someone who knows the legal field, understands the law firm and has senior-level experience,” she said. “Law firms make mistakes and may have to go back and review its succession plan.”