Latham & Watkins global chair and managing partner Robert Dell will retire at the end of 2014, ending a two decade-run atop one of the world’s largest law firms.
Dell, who was first elected managing partner in 1994 at the age of 42, confirmed to The Am Law Daily Wednesday that he will serve out the remainder of his fourth consecutive term in Latham’s top leadership post but will not seek a fifth five-year term. Dell’s successor will be decided in an election scheduled for July 2014 and that person will take the reins at Latham as of January 1, 2015, according to firm spokesman Geoff Burt. Once Dell steps down, he plans to leave the firm, opting for retirement over moving into a different position within the firm.
The 61-year-old Dell tells The Am Law Daily he feels it’s best for him to step aside completely in order to “get out of the way” of whoever succeeds him. “When a new person is coming in, following a person who has been doing it for two decades, I think that new person deserves a lot of space,” he says. “So, my view is it’s best for me to retire and to let that person create his own successes, or her own.”
To oversee the identification and election process, Latham has appointed a succession committee, headed by New York-based litigation partner Miles Ruthberg, that consists of a diverse group of partners from a variety of the firm’s offices and practice groups. Once elected, the managing partner-elect will work with Dell through the remainder of 2014 to ensure a smooth transition.
Dell adds that Latham’s current stability makes the timing right for him to end his long run as leader and ensure a smooth transition to a new regime: “I think it’s a great time,” he says. “We’ve got the firm in a very strong, stable place. There’s nothing happening that is controversial, or anything like that. It’s a fairly calm period.”
Dell began his career as an associate with Chicago-based litigation boutique Hedlund, Hunter & Lynch. Latham entered the Windy City market in 1982 by merging with Hedlund Hunter in a move that wound up being a key step in the larger firm’s transition from upstart California firm to the global powerhouse it is today. When asked how he saw his career at Latham shaping up at the time of that merger, Dell admits he had relatively modest aspirations: “I was a mid-level associate in Chicago and I just assumed I would practice in Chicago and, hopefully, become a partner there and then conduct my practice as a litigator in Chicago—[and those were] my only thoughts at the time.”
In 1990, Latham tapped Dell, who was by then a partner, to head up its new San Francisco branch. Four years later, he was elected as chair and managing partner of the entire firm, beginning his initial term on January 1, 1995. In two decades at the helm, Dell has guided a growth strategy that has seen Latham’s head count swell from 586 attorneys to more than 2,100.
Though Dell’s tenure at Latham began as the result of a merger, the firm has eschewed tie-ups on his watch. Opting instead for a mix of internal growth and selective lateral hiring, Latham has nonetheless managed to add 20 offices to the 11 it had when Dell took over. The firm—which ranked third on The American Lawyer’s most recent Am Law 100 ranking of highest-grossing law firms—has also seen its gross revenue surge from the $262 million it took in 1994 to the $2.2 billion it generated last year. Latham’s profits per partner have also skyrocketed: from $550,000 to $2.44 million over that same period.
Michael Blair, who has frequently interacted with Dell since becoming Debevoise & Plimpton’s presiding partner in 2011, says Dell is “probably the most admired law firm managing partner in the country,” thanks to Latham’s success as well as the personal qualities that draw others to him. “It’s hard for me to imagine Latham without Bob Dell at the helm, because he’s guided a very significant transformation of that firm involving a great deal of growth, a great deal of success.”
K&L Gates chairman and global managing partner Peter Kalis, who says he has known Dell for roughly 20 years, also reached out to The Am Law Daily to share his thoughts: “Bob is the gold standard in managing partners, globally, and he’s proven it in the marketplace. He’s proven it by his commitment to a lot of professional values, including pro bono and diversity. He’s proven it by anticipating the globalization of commerce in the 21st century. And, he has . . . been a steady voice in a tumultuous era.”
And, yet, Dell says he never envisioned such a long and prosperous run on top of the firm: “It certainly wasn’t one of those aspirations or plans, or anything like that. It was just one of life’s good fortunes.”
While Dell himself may opt for humility when looking back on his tenure as managing partner, several of his colleagues were effusive in reflecting on his impending departure.
“Bob is simply one of the finest leaders our profession has seen,” retired Latham partner Mark Newell, a former member of the firm’s executive committee who served as vice chair from 2002 to 2011, said in a statement provided by the firm. “His strategic vision, astute business judgment and strong resolve during his two decades as firm chair enabled Latham & Watkins to become one of the world’s leading law firms, while remaining true to its one-firm culture and insistence on excellence. Bob is deeply respected both inside and outside of the firm for his character, intellect and ability to build consensus while also driving the business forward in service of the firm’s clients.”
Latham’s current vice chairs, partners and executive committee members David Gordon and Ora Fisher also spoke highly of the departing managing partner. “Bob is a giant of the profession whose far-sighted leadership and strategic expertise have helped build an incredibly strong institution with very diversified practices and a phenomenally strong global platform. He has the rare combination of sound instinct, unflappable confidence and bold decision-making that make him a truly extraordinary leader,” Fisher said in a statement.
For his part, Gordon said in a statement of his own: “Over the course of nearly two decades, Bob has led the firm with clear vision, integrity and humility. Under his dynamic leadership, Latham has had transformational growth and outstanding success. Bob embodies the unique spirit and culture of our firm; over the years, in everything Bob has done, it has always been first and foremost for the good of the firm, which has been and continues to be one of his most powerful gifts to our firm. Bob has been a mentor and role model to many, and his legacy will be immense.”
Gordon and Fisher are both likely to be among the candidates to take over for Dell once he retires. Both typically work on corporate matters, with Fisher based out of Silicon Valley and Gordon located in the New York office he once oversaw as managing partner.
Though Dell says he has a few ideas on who might succeed him, he isn’t sharing them. “We’ll go through a very disciplined process to identify the best candidates and then we’ll have an election . . . I’m leaving a year here to do that, so we’ll be able to elect someone and I’ll be able to spend a number of months to help transition. So, it’ll be a very smooth transition.”
What Dell will say is that geography is not likely to be a factor in deciding Latham’s next managing partner. “That’s the least important factor because, whoever it is, like me, will simply be on airplanes,” he says. “For me, I was in San Francisco, but it really didn’t matter. It’s a job where you’re on airplanes and in all of the different offices all of the time.”
Whoever replaces Dell after all these years, the long-serving managing partner says he expects Latham to continue its rank among the world’s top law firms. And, asked to sum up his legacy, he says, “If I had to do a soundbite, I guess I would say I’m most proud of the fact that we have built one of the largest global firms in the world and done so in our own way and preserved our unique culture in doing that. And, that’s not easy. We didn’t do it with mergers and we grew throughout the globe and did so in a way that preserved what I’ve told our partners is our most important asset, which is our culture.”