Jay Zimmerman.
Jay Zimmerman. ()

Five months after posting its worst-ever single-year decline in profitability, Bingham McCutchen said Tuesday that longtime chairman Jay Zimmerman will officially hand over day-to-day management of the firm to managing partner Steven Browne as of June 1.

In announcing the change, Bingham said Zimmerman—who has occupied the chairman’s post since 1994—will continue to hold the title through next year, but will shift his focus to client relations and the firm’s international offices and strategy once Browne takes on the daily management duties.

“It’s been an incredibly rewarding run,” Zimmerman said in a statement. “The partnership is fortunate to be able to count on Steve and a new generation of leaders to guide Bingham to the next level.”

Browne identified that new generation by naming three partners to his management team: Daniel Papermaster, the firm’s Hartford office head and cochair of the transactional finance group, who will serve as operating partner; tax practice head and New York managing partner Anthony Carbone, who takes on the role of finance partner; and labor and employment practice group chair Debra Fischer, who becomes the firm’s administrative partner. The three will work with Browne and Zimmerman on all firm matters; Browne, Papermaster, Carbone and Fischer all plan to continue their practices.

“We’re excited to lead Bingham in such dynamic times,” said Browne. “A lot of thought went into the transition process, the new governance structure and the partners selected to help me lead.

Bingham did not make Zimmerman or Browne, who took on the newly created managing partner role last September, available for interviews. And while it labeled the move as the latest step in a three-year succession planning process, the firm’s press release announcing the handoff did not explicitly identify Browne as Bingham’s next chairman or as Zimmerman’s permanent replacement. Asked to clarify whether Browne’s title would change over time, a Bingham spokeswoman said the firm is taking a “wait-and-see approach” to the chairman’s role and “will decide whether to continue it or absorb it well before” the end of next year.

For Zimmerman, Tuesday’s announcement caps an eventful 20 years at the helm. Over the course of those two decades, Bingham grew from a 175-lawyer regional player into a global firm that once boasted 850 lawyers and managed to thrive amid the recent economic downturn, even as many of its rivals struggled.

Last year, however, the firm faltered, as The American Lawyer reports in its current issue. The end of several major litigation matters and a stagnant restructuring practice helped drive gross revenue down 12.6 percent, to $762 million. Combined with a surge in expenses largely attributable to the opening of a new back-office center in Lexington, Ky., the revenue falloff led profits per partner to plunge 12.7 percent, to $1.445 million.

Meanwhile, the firm has lost 65 partners—some of whom were encouraged to leave, along with many others who weren’t—since January 2013. By the end of last year, partner head count was down 12 percent, to 298—its lowest level since 2008, the year before Bingham merged with 120-lawyer McKee Nelson.

The departures have continued into this year, though the pace has slowed. Most recently, Vinson & Elkins announced on May 12 that it had recruited Bingham tax controversy partner Sheri Dillon to its Washington, D.C., office. Dillon’s move came about a month after hedge fund specialists Robert Leonard and Michael Mavrides joined Proskauer Rose’s New York office.

Browne, 50, joined Bingham in 2005 following the collapse of his previous firm, Boston-based Testa, Hurwitz & Thibeault. He has served in a number of leadership roles since then, including managing partner of Bingham’s Boston office, cochair of the firm’s corporate practice and coleader of the corporate, mergers and acquisitions, and securities group. The firm noted in Tuesday’s press release that Browne was among the first to attend a leadership training program several years ago designed for a handful of midcareer partners the firm had identified as potential future leaders.

Discussing how Bingham planned to rebound from last year’s poor financial performance, Browne said in April that the firm hoped to increase its presence in the global funds area by advising registered funds as well as private equity and hedge funds. Clients served in that area, he added, would help drive growth in the firm’s global restructuring, M&A and financing groups. Corporate work, Browne and other firm leaders said in April, would continue to be a priority, especially in the tech and life sciences area.

As for Zimmerman, he is the latest in a wave of longtime Am Law 100 firm leaders to step down since the start of last year. Those leaving the leadership ranks include Robert Dell, who will end his own 20-year run at the helm of Latham & Watkins at the end of this year; Ralph Baxter, who closed out his two decades-plus run as Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe’s chairman last spring; Mel Immergut, who stepped down as Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy’s leader after 16 years last March; and R. Bruce McLean, who ceded the reins at Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld after leading the firm for 20 years.