Two Am Law 100 firms are getting new leaders, with labor and employment firm Jackson Lewis naming litigation head Vincent Cino to succeed Patrick Vaccaro as chairman, and Minneapolis-based Dorsey & Whitney choosing corporate and transactions group head Kenneth Cutler to follow Marianne Short as the firm’s managing partner.

For Jackson Lewis, the planning to find a successor to Vaccaro began in the spring when he announced his intention to return to practicing labor law after a six-year run as chairman that saw the White Plains, New York–based firm double in size, Jackson Lewis now has 735 lawyers—more than half of them partners—spread across 49 offices around the country.

Cino, who joined the firm in 1990, was unanimously approved as the firm’s new chairman by a partnership vote at the firm’s annual meeting in mid-September, according to a press release announcing his election to a four-year term. The Morristown, New Jersey–based Cino—who worked as a prosecutor in New Jersey and headed the Essex County counsel’s office earlier in his career—becomes the fifth chairman in Jackson Lewis’s 54-year-old history.

Cino says the idea of moving into the post appealed to him on the heels of stints heading the firm’s litigation group, serving on its management committee, and acting as its general counsel. Still, it will be hard for him to give up the courtroom. “I told the partnership, I’m the least likely person anyone would think would run the firm,” Cino says, referring to how much he enjoys litigating cases.

Demand for labor and employment attorneys, whose specialty is often considered recession-proof, has remained strong throughout both the recession and ensuing recovery. One sign of the sector’s strength: Jackson Lewis alone has racked up 10 percent annual increases in gross revenue each of the last four years, reaching the $326.5 million mark in 2011.

Kent Zimmerman, a legal consultant with the Zeughauser Group, says the focus on a single practice area has helped firms like Jackson Lewis stay strong. “Although becoming one of the best labor and employment firms is not a choice every law firm decides to make, it’s better than making no choice at all and trying to be all things to all people, which is a trap many firms get into,” Zimmerman says.

Cino says the firm, which picks up only a small slice of its work in the traditional labor sector, currently has approximately 6,500 litigation matters pending in U.S. courts, including 450 class actions. Unlike some of its full-service competitors, Jackson Lewis doesn’t shy away from defending against single-plaintiff cases with relatively small stakes. Cino pegs the firm’s number of clients at 13,000, including such prominent names as Pfizer, IBM, Toys “R” Us, Boehringer Ingelheim, and Neiman Marcus.

Jackson Lewis enjoyed robust growth during Vaccaro’s run as chairman. As Vaccaro told The American Lawyer in January 2011, the firm’s expansion strategy during his tenure involved swallowing local boutiques in cities Jackson Lewis wanted to enter or hiring groups of lawyers from general practice firms.

Over the past two years, for instance, Jackson Lewis has moved into Austin by adding three immigration lawyers from Greenberg Traurig; hired one lawyer from St. Louis–based Pitzer Snodgrass to open there; launched in Napa Valley, California, with five attorneys from local boutique Johanson Berenson; and entered the Milwaukee market by acquiring six-lawyer Simandl & Prentice. (Cino notes that all the expansion was done without taking on debt.)   

Jackson Lewis’s labor-and-employment-only competitors Fisher & Phillips (27 offices); Littler Mendelson (55 offices); and Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart (41 offices) have followed similar strategies in making their pushes to expand in recent years. 

While such growth can create a downside in the form of a collection of small, regional offices that lack a unified culture or create fiefdoms, Cino says Jackson Lewis is trying to avoid that outcome. For example, he says, the firm’s 10-person management committee includes nine regional coordinators whose responsibilities include integrating lateral hires and offices in a given area. Every third year the firm also pays to gather all of its attorneys and their families in a single location—in 2011, it was San Diego—for a mostly work-free weekend retreat designed help everyone get acquainted. “We work extremely hard at keeping the firm unified,” he says.

Unlike Jackson Lewis, Dorsey had to move fairly quickly to make a leadership change prompted by Short’s departure last month to become the chief legal officer at longtime Dorsey client UnitedHealth Group.

For Dorsey’s Short—who became one of the few women to lead an Am Law 100 firm when she took over as managing partner in 2007—the past few years have presented their share of challenges on the financial front. But after a few down years and a significant decline in revenue amid the recession, Dorsey did manage to stabilize its finances in 2011, mainly by cutting expenses. The firm had gross revenue of $323.5 million last year, according to the most recent Am Law 100 data.

Short’s successor, Cutler, will celebrate his thirty-ninth anniversary at the firm when he begins his three-year term as managing partner in January. Cutler says he put his name forward to the firm’s policy committee when it began looking for a replacement.

“There were many very good people applying for the job,” he says, adding partially in jest, “but I was fortunate—or unfortunate, I’m not sure—to win.” A graduate of the University of Texas School of Law, Cutler specializes in mergers and acquisitions, emerging companies, and venture capital work.

Cutler says Dorsey will continue to focus on health care and energy work, with much of the latter coming from clients located in the firm’s home base of Minnesota and nearby North Dakota, where Dorsey also has an office.

“We can see a pick up in the economy,” says Cutler, addressing how he expects the firm to find its footing after several challenging years. ‘And as we evolve, I believe we’ll become more efficient.” 

Diane Jeantet contributed reporting.