Baker & McKenzie's Chairman Eduardo de Cerqueira Leite
Baker & McKenzie’s Chairman Eduardo de Cerqueira Leite (Illustration by Gordon Studer)

Kim Koopersmith has been chairwoman of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld since 2013, and going into her third year at the helm, she says she feels good about where the 800-lawyer firm is headed. “We’ve enjoyed some good strategic success, and the partnership feels strong,” she says.

And her personal well-being? That’s a trickier question. Some days, she concedes, she feels like a wreck. Little wonder. Her job keeps her on the road three weeks out of four, crossing and recrossing time zones, living out of a suitcase, a different hotel every few days. In late January, Koopersmith traveled to the firm’s Hong Kong office, the first leg of a trip that would take her on to Beijing, then back stateside to Washington, D.C., and New York, all in the span of about 10 days. As a veteran of firm management and an experienced commercial litigator, Koopersmith is no stranger to long hours and hard work. But she says the role of running a global law firm is qualitatively different from her prior experiences, and she admits that even after several years she is still learning to deal with the lifestyle that goes with her position.

“You’re talking about an organization that is active 24 hours a day; there aren’t any real limits on the job,” says Koopersmith. “I can’t do this job if I ever turn off my iPhone. I get something every five minutes and check it all night long.”

The role of the managing partner or firm chairman has always been a demanding one. But while a previous generation of firm leaders had to juggle the client demands and supersized egos of a few hundred lawyers in a half-dozen offices, today those responsibilities extend around the globe and around the clock. In 2000 the average Am Law 100 firm had 559 lawyers working out of 10 offices. In 2013 the average firm in The Am Law 100 had 920 lawyers in 19 offices. “The whole thing has evolved in such a radically different way that it’s hard to compare my life as a managing partner in the late 1990s with my experience now,” says Peter Kalis, managing partner of K&L Gates, which now has 47 offices on five continents and more than 2,000 lawyers. “It’s not even a comparable set of challenges.” Kalis says he expects to log between 300,000 and 400,000 miles of travel this year over “I couldn’t even tell you how many” days: “My wife jokes that I have an office in Pittsburgh and an office in New York, a home in Pittsburgh and a home in Florida, and I’m never at any of them.”

Kalis and Koopersmith are hardly alone. William Voge, the newly minted chairman and managing partner of Latham & Watkins, who is based in London, says he expects to be on the road 30 weeks or more this year and to rack up in excess of 200,000 miles of air travel. Roger Meltzer, global co-chairman of DLA Piper, says an important part of his job these days is being able to fit more than one workday in any given 24-hour period: “So if I’m in the U.K., I’ll work a U.K. day, followed by a U.S. day.” Stephen Immelt, who took over as CEO of Hogan Lovells in mid-2014, cites his ability to sleep anywhere at any time as a talent that’s key to doing his job. “It’s a huge benefit,” he says. While his years as a practicing lawyer focused on corporate investigations were intense, Immelt adds, nothing could prepare him for the demands of his current job: “It’s one of those experiences that until you do it, no one can describe it to you. It’s relentless.”

Ten years ago it was common to hear that technology would obviate the need for travel. Firms spoke of systematizing management to relieve lawyers of the burdens of administration. When leading your law firm becomes arguably the toughest job in the legal profession, the question may fairly be asked: Why?

Immelt thinks the nature of law firms is a key driver in the demands of the job. “Our key assets are our people. We don’t own any patents or manufacture any machines,” he says—and keeping those assets happy requires a personal touch. “We have 42 offices, and I may not visit every one of them this year, but I’ll try to get to as many of them as I can,” Immelt says. “Maybe because of technology and social media, lawyers expect a different kind of relationship with the firm chairman than they did 10 years ago,” says Seth Zachary, chairman of Paul Hastings. “It has to be more robust and personal.” Earle Yaffa, former longtime managing director of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, says that as firms have gotten more geographically and culturally diverse, it’s increasingly important for firm leaders to be well-known throughout the organization and to keep up relationships with hundreds of partners in offices around the world. “And the only way to get that done is to go spend time on the road with them,” Yaffa says. Barry Wolf, the New York-based executive partner of Weil, Gotshal & Manges, says he will make it to every one of his firm’s 20 offices this year and meet with every partner one-on-one for 30 minutes to an hour. “If I cut back my individual partner visits, I’d have a lot less stress,” says Wolf. “But that’s an important part of the job.”

And while technology is a great aid to communication—many managing partners and chairmen now maintain full-time blogs and use videoconferencing to loop in partners from around the world—there remains no substitute for direct face-time. “I’ll use tech a lot for routine meetings and quite often for job interviews,” says Voge. “But you can’t get the body language or hallway chatter on a videoconference. Thirty percent of what you pick up actually comes after the meeting.” Eduardo Leite, chairman of Baker & McKenzie, echoes Voge’s observations: “I like to hear with my own ears what is going on in each market, see it with my own eyes.” He cites a recent trip to Spain, where he spent three-and-a-half days immersed in meetings with firm lawyers, clients and government officials assessing the currents roiling the Spanish economy. “That’s extremely valuable in terms of what I think we should be doing in that market at this time,” Leite says.

Maintaining that kind of personal contact with firm lawyers and doing on-the-ground assessments comes at a price. To deal with the physical demands of so much travel, many firm leaders have developed a comprehensive strategy for life on the road. (Click here for Voge’s travel tips.) At the top of most lists? Exercise.

Whereas a generation ago, most managing partners might favor a hotel with a great bar in the lobby or a four-star restaurant, these days they’re more apt to require a 24-hour gym or a personal trainer. Zachary makes it a point to know where he is going to exercise in every city he travels to, and estimates he works out three times as much now as he did in 2010. “And not because I love it,” he says. “It just makes me so much better at coping with the physical aspects of the job.” Kalis says that while earlier in his career he would skate by with a minimal workout, then gear up and run a marathon, these days he’s much more religious about getting in an hour to an hour and a half of “pretty intense” exercise most days, even if he has to sacrifice sleep to do it. “I joke that there are very few people in the world who work out as much as I do with less visible effects,” says Kalis. Missing workouts, he says, makes “it a little hard to bounce off that 16-hour flight from Dallas to Sydney.” Immelt says that his job requires that he think of himself almost as an athlete in training. He logged about 2,000 miles last year on his bike. “I used to do 3,000 miles, but 2,000 isn’t too bad,” he says.

While maintaining fitness can help with the rigors of the road, most firm leaders say that by far the biggest physical challenge is the constant jet lag. “It’s 11 in the morning, and your body thinks it’s 11 at night, and of course things don’t stop at the firm just because you are on the road,” says Weil’s Wolf. “If I could change one thing for my job,” says Zachary, “everyone would have to live on Greenwich Mean Time, even if we had to work in the dark.” Daniel O’Donnell, chief executive officer of Dechert, admits that the constant time-shifting is the least favorite part of his job. “Some people love the travel,” he says. “I’m not one of them. I’m not a happy traveler. That’s why God created Ambien.”

Ah, the great Ambien debate. Some swear by the ubiquitous sleeping pill. Others have sworn off it. “I’m an Ambien girl,” says Akin Gump’s Koopersmith. “I actually look forward to it.” DLA Piper’s Meltzer, on the other hand, prefers to abstain from all sleep aids: “I used to try some of that stuff, but it always left me with a little bit of a hangover.” Instead Meltzer prefers a strict regime on the plane of no drinking, eating very little and getting up and moving every couple of hours to do a series of stretches at the front of the plane: “I like to make sure the blood is flowing from head to toe.” Bill Voge also swore off Ambien, but only because he got tired of having to get a prescription for it. Instead, he switched to over-the-counter Advil PM. “I’ve got two in my pocket right now,” Voge said from a car on the way to the airport. Eduardo Leite is in the no-pill camp. He says he’ll have a glass of wine on his flight, if the wine is good, and tries to avoid caffeine. “Which is tough for a Brazilian,” he notes. On arrival, he’ll often take a cold shower and try to leave time for some power naps the first few days after a major time zone shift. “Ice cream also helps,” he says. He prefers vanilla. (Read here on how to minimize health risks of air travel.)

Part of managing time dislocation, says Immelt, is accepting where you are, not focusing on where you came from. “You need to take a Zen approach,” he says. “I’ve gotten much more at peace about it. I always try to get myself into the mindset that I am where I am. Otherwise, air travel will really wear you down.”

Of course, managing partners aren’t the only ones who have to deal with the demands of their vagabond lifestyles. Their families do as well. “My husband and I have known each other since the fifth grade, we can always find a way to make it work,” says Akin Gump’s Koopermsith, “But there’s no way I could have taken this job if my kids were not grown and out of the house.” Roger Meltzer says his long-standing policy, whenever possible, is to go and come back on the same day so he can be with his family. “I’ll go to Rio on the night flight, spend the day, then fly back that night. Same with London,” he says. Zachary rejects the idea that the managing partner job has become exclusively an older partner’s domain, although he admits that he has had to get more disciplined about carving out family time when he is at home. “I started this job in my 40s, kids at home, living the ‘burbs,’ ” he says. “ There’s a strain on someone’s life, being a young CEO or president. There’s a strain if someone is an actor shooting a movie in Spain or a journalist covering a story in Egypt.” Baker & McKenzie’s Leite notes that his predecessor had seven children. “It can be done,” he says. “Maybe you have to delegate more. Some of how you do the job comes down to personal style.”

Given the demands that go with global firm leadership, some firms have tinkered with dividing up the top job. At Dechert, for example, O’Donnell is CEO, while Andrew Levander chairs the firm’s policy committee. DLA Piper also has chosen to maintain divided leadership, with Meltzer and his global co-chairman, Sir Nigel Knowles, who is based in the firm’s London office. Other firms have tried and discarded split leadership, such as Hogan Lovells, which consolidated the position under Stephen Immelt last year. “We were ready to move away from co-leadership,” says Immelt. “Life gets a lot simpler when you don’t always have long consultations at the top.”

But Immelt concedes that the job can be an isolating one compared with his prior roles as partner or section leader. “You need to step back on your relationships,” he says. “You have a responsibility to be a disinterested party when hard issues come up.” Weil’s Wolf agrees that “having to call balls and strikes” doesn’t always make you a lot of friends at the firm, and also says he misses the immediate rewards of practicing law: the sense of accomplishment from closing deals and advising clients.

“This job is very different,” he says. “You don’t get those daily adrenaline rushes. It’s more about long-term satisfaction.”

Indeed, despite the demands of the job, many firm heads used such terms as “love,” “adore” and “addicted” to describe their feelings for their work. “Every week is something different, somewhere new,” says O’Donnell. Meltzer says he particularly enjoys getting immersed in the various cultures where the firm has offices. “You learn over time to how to take people as you find them, and what is possible within their culture, whether you’re in New York, London, Madrid or Bangkok,” he says. Despite the rigors of the job, Koopersmith says she values the sense of connection to the firm that comes from all that travel and those middle-of-the-night emails. “A law firm is a live entity,” she says. “It needs to be nurtured and tended to flourish.”

At the end of this year, Koopersmith’s first three-year term as chairwoman of Akin Gump is up. “I would say it’s very likely that I will be considering another term,” she says.

Correction, 2/27/15, 12:00pm EST: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Kim Koopersmith became chairwoman of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld in 2012; in fact, she took the post in 2013. The first paragraph has been revised to correct this error.

Clarification, 2/27/15, 4:00pm EST: Earle Yaffa, former managing director of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, remains a senior adviser at the firm.