The search to find a successor to Ralph Baxter is officially on.
In fact, a year and a half after the longtime chairman and CEO of Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe announced plans to retire at the end of 2013, the field of candidates to ascend to the firm’s top leadership post has been narrowed to four Orrick partners: Los Angeles–based finance partner Alan Benjamin; Walter Brown, a white-collar litigator in San Francisco; James Stengel, a mass torts and product liability litigator in New York; and Mitchell Zuklie, a technology-focused corporate lawyer in Silicon Valley. The names were provided by a current Orrick partner and former partners still in close contact with colleagues at the firm, speaking on condition of anonymity.
None of the four returned calls for comment, and publicly the firm will only acknowledge that, per Orrick’s partnership agreement, a nominating committee has been formed that will identify Baxter’s successor. The committee hopes to announce its pick to the full partnership at the firm’s annual January partners’ meeting, says Orrick chief operating officer Reid Horovitz.
“The committee is working in a very orderly, collaborative manner,” says Horovitz. “It is going according to plan.”
The current partner and several former partners say that plan calls for the nominating committee, which is being led by New York partner Peter Coll, to choose the leader without a contested election after polling partners for their opinions.
Sources inside and outside the firm, none of whom were willing to speak on the record for risk of ruining relationships at Orrick, shared their take on who may have the best shot of taking over the firm Baxter has grown from a 254-lawyer regional shop to a 1,000-plus-lawyer international operation. (For more on Baxter’s legacy, read “Ralph . . . Has Left the Building” from the May issue of The American Lawyer.)
All four of the partners being considered were recruited to Orrick as laterals during Baxter’s reign, a trait they share with many members of the firm’s 370-member partnership. Three of the four lateraled from now-defunct firms—two in the wake of failed merger talks between their former firms and Orrick—and all have served in management roles over the years. And while the four offer little in the way of gender or ethnic diversity, they do represent a cross section of the firm’s locations and practice areas.
The two litigators—Brown, 53, and Stengel, 56—are described as old-fashioned trial attorneys with busy practices that may be hard to set aside if either is called on to be leader. “People are hiring Walt, not Orrick,” says one former partner about Brown, a former federal prosecutor in Los Angeles who routinely handles high-profile white-collar cases, including several stock options back dating scandals in the past decade. A University of Notre Dame Law School alum, he has close ties to Melinda Haag, the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of California, who left Orrick in 2010 after being appointed to her new role by President Barack Obama. Brown came to Orrick in 2002 from Thelen, which went bankrupt in 2009.
Stengel, a University of Michigan Law School graduate, joined Orrick in New York in 1998 when his former firm, the now-defunct Donovan Leisure Newton & Irvine, was on the verge of collapse in the wake of failed merger talks with Orrick. Instead of merging, a group of 40 Donovan Leisure litigators, including 14 partners, jumped to Orrick. (The New York office is now Orrick’s largest, while San Francisco remains the firm’s headquarters.)
Supported in large part by work from Union Carbide Corporation, an affiliate of The Dow Chemical Company, Stengel frequently appears on the docket in major mass tort cases, defending companies against claims of asbestos damage, tobacco-related illnesses, and other ails. (An acquaintance of Stengel’s noted that he races cars in his spare time.)
More than a decade younger than the others, Zuklie, 43, has made a name for himself working on the formation and financing of technology companies, carving out a niche specifically in the clean technology sector before the recent rush into that market. After graduating from University of Berkeley School of Law in 1996, Zuklie got his start at Venture Law Group, the corporate startup-focused law firm that Orrick tried to acquire but that eventually teamed with Heller Ehrman five years before that firm went under in 2008. Zuklie left Venture Law Group to join Orrick in 2005, two years after VLG merged with Heller.
Benjamin, 59, has been at the firm the longest but appears to be the least well-known of the four. Armed with three degrees from the University of California Los Angeles (undergraduate, business, and law), he focuses on financial transactions and restructuring matters, often involving the gaming industry.
A 1994 lateral from Morrison & Foerster, where he served as Los Angeles managing partner for more than a year, Benjamin has taken on a slew of operations-side management positions at Orrick. Those roles included serving as one of four managing directors, a position that under a previous management structure was charged with oversight of the firm’s offices; serving on the executive committee from 1997 to 2001; chairing the private finance and banking and finance practice groups; and serving as the firm’s chief financial officer in 2009 and 2010—a post that saw him directly work with the firm’s bank lenders. He currently chairs the committee that oversees the firm’s finances, according to his bio on Orrick’s website.
If Baxter’s example is any guide, whoever is ultimately chosen as the firm’s new leader may have to give up his practice completely. In the 22 years since Baxter took on the chairman and CEO role, he has in many ways tried to make the firm look more like a corporation than a traditional partnership. He has done so in part by ceasing his law practice to focus on management, always stressing the bottom line as a top priority.
Baxter, 65, has also positioned himself into a voice of the legal industry, routinely speaking out about what he believes ails the profession and making changes—including launching a back office in Wheeling, West Virginia, scrapping lockstep advancement for associates, downplaying profits per partner, and embracing alternative fee arrangements—in an attempt to set Orrick apart.
Whether or not the new chair continues to be the highest-paid partner at Orrick, as Baxter has consistently been, remains to be seen. But as discussed in The American Lawyer‘s May feature, changes aimed at diffusing the chair’s power are already in the works. Earlier this year, Orrick revamped its organizational structure, replacing its previous two–practice groups structure with five practice groups, each with its own leaders. In the process, Zuklie became head of the corporate transactions team, while Brown took over the litigation group.