Therese Pritchard and Don Lents
Therese Pritchard and Don Lents ()

Washington, D.C.–based white-collar and securities enforcement lawyer Therese Pritchard is in line to take over the top leadership role at Bryan Cave from longtime chair Don Lents, the firm announced Wednesday, making her the first woman and the first partner outside of St. Louis to lead the firm in its 140-year history.

Bryan Cave’s partnership finalized a vote Monday on the succession plan, following the recommendation of the firm’s 15-person executive committee. Pritchard will assume her new role in October.

Pritchard, who says she’s “proud and excited” about taking on the job, joins a small but growing contingent of female law firm leaders in The Am Law 200. Others include Jami Wintz McKeon at Morgan, Lewis & Bockius and Kimberly Leach Johnson at Quarles & Brady, both of whom were promoted to their firms’ top leadership roles earlier this year.

Over the years, Pritchard has taken on several management roles in the firm, including spots on the executive and compensation committees and as overseer of the firm’s Asia practice. She joined the firm in 1999 from Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, where she’d worked as counsel for a few years after a decades-long career in government.

From 1982 to 1991, Pritchard worked in the enforcement division of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. From there, she went to the Treasury Department’s Office of Thrift Supervision and served as deputy chief counsel, overseeing fraud cases brought by the government stemming from the savings and loan crisis.

At the SEC, Pritchard was a member of the team that turned arbitrageur Ivan Boesky into a government cooperator after the agency confronted him with evidence of extensive insider trading. As part of the deal, Boesky served three-and-a-half years in prison and agreed to a $100 million settlement.

A Boston native, Pritchard attended Boston College Law School and stayed in her hometown for her first legal job, an in-house role at what is now Bank of America.

In an interview this week, Pritchard spoke in generalities about the operation she’s about to lead, citing only the firm’s “complete commitment to providing the highest level of service and legal counsel to a great group of clients” as what sets Bryan Cave apart in the crowded legal market.

Lents, 64, says the decision to vacate the position at the end of September has been a long time coming; when his second five-year term expires next year, he will be approaching the age limit for chair of 65, as set by the firm’s partnership agreement.

“Ten years is a long time to do this kind of job,” says Lents, a corporate governance and transactional lawyer who has become close to a full-time manager in recent years.

At 60, Pritchard is only be eligible to serve one five-year term.

Lents has been with the firm for his entire career, joining in 1974 as a recent Harvard Law School graduate at a time when the firm had 55 lawyers housed in a single office in St. Louis. Today, Bryan Cave is among the 50 highest-grossing law firms in the country, with more than 1,100 lawyers in 30 offices around the world.

Under Lents’ watch, Bryan Cave’s revenue rose by nearly 63 percent from 2004 to 2012, to $624 million on the most recent Am Law 100 list, due in part to a pair of combinations with midsize firms. In 2009, Bryan Cave acquired 220-lawyer Powell Goldstein, gaining a banking practice and offices in Atlanta, Dallas and Charlotte. Early last year, the firm finalized its combination with Holme Roberts & Owen, a 175-lawyer firm centered in the Rocky Mountain region that specialized in energy, natural resources and sports law.

The firm’s growth strategy, Lents says, has always focused on how to maintain its reputation as a relationship-oriented firm—a catchphrase he insists Bryan Cave used “well before the phrase … became so widely used that it ceased to have any particular meaning.”

Lents says Bryan Cave lawyers advise clients on matters that are “essential to their success,” even if that doesn’t mean landing the highest-profile deals or bet-the-company litigation. Some of the firm’s clients include Bank of America, Wells Fargo, JPMorgan Chase, U.S. Bank, Emerson Electric and Boeing.

Paul Smith, a Bryan Cave partner in Boulder and Denver who served as chair of Holme Roberts & Owen’s executive committee at the time of the merger, said his side wasn’t focused on succession planning at the time of the combination but that he’s been impressed with what he calls the firm’s intentional efforts at developing leaders. Bryan Cave also rolled out a seamless integration plan to help smooth the transition for HRO lawyers, Smith says. “Don’s very good at looking forward, figuring out what’s needed, then finding a way to move forward relentlessly,” he says.

In addition to overseeing the firm’s expansion, Lents says he is proud of his efforts to help diversify the firm, including the creation of affinity groups and hiring of a chief diversity officer, and his work to find more innovative ways to assist clients. “I encourage our lawyers to adopt the same mind-set our clients have, to be thinking about how can we do what we do in some combination of better/ faster/cheaper,” he says.

After seeing the firm through the great recession, Lents recognizes that the job Pritchard inherits is more challenging than when he started. “I view the legal profession now—in essence it has shifted from what’s been a growth industry for the entire time I’ve been practicing to much more of a mature industry now,” Lents says. “That requires differences in the way you think about growth, opportunities, building market share. … It’s less clear and visible than 10 years ago.”

Pritchard says she never aspired to be the head of a law firm and that her interest in the job is “largely because I love this firm. … I would like to participate in its continued growth and development and provide others with the same wonderful opportunities I’ve had.”