Tony Nasharr

Anthony Nasharr knew little to nothing about Big Law life when his six-lawyer boutique was absorbed into Polsinelli in 2006. But Polsinelli’s Chicago managing partner for the past 11 years proved a quick study, having grown the office into nearly 100 lawyers a little more than a decade later.

Nasharr will step down Thursday from that leadership position and be replaced by Mary Clare Bonaccorsi, the current leader of Polsinelli’s health care litigation practice.

On the last day of his leadership, The American Lawyer caught up with Nasharr to discuss how Polsinelli found success in a challenging Windy City lateral market; why he wasn’t in the running to be the next chair of the firm; who will plan the cocktail hours at Polsinelli’s brand-new Chicago office space; and his plans to take a three-month sabbatical starting Friday.

The American Lawyer: You opened in Chicago in 2006 with 3,700 square feet and six lawyers. You’re now around 100 lawyers in about 85,000 square feet. Did you expect you would have growth like this?

Nasharr: No. We’ve been, I would say, fortunate. But we’ve also been focused on the process and that’s what led to the growth of Polsinelli in Chicago. I will accept that we’re a unique story, but I would attribute a large part of that to being really Kansas City-founded and to a less degree now, Kansas City-managed. Our Kansas City founders and Kansas City baseboard have been very energetic about pushing leadership roles and connections outside of Kansas City.

TAL: The last decade was not a period of extreme growth for most law offices in Chicago. Many of the largest Chicago-founded firms have shrunk their head count here in that time, which Polsinelli may have contributed to with its addition of so many laterals.

Nasharr: We’ve been a beneficiary of that and maybe contributed to that. But some firms adjusted how they did things, or, bluntly, they adjusted rates to a level their colleagues couldn’t keep the loyalty of certain clients. Those colleagues of other firms said, “Where can I practice that makes my clients happy and appreciated and serviced?” And in 2006, we were not that place. In 2008, we might not have been that place.

But as we carried growth from 2006 into 2009 and 2010, we became a place where really talented folks, whose rates were approaching four-digits at times, said, “I can service my client relationships better by having a lower rate and the support I need to service that client.” And yet they’ll have all the services they need to be considered the go-to person for those clients. So we’ve been a beneficiary of what some firms have called right-sizing or elevating their rates to keep up with whatever they’re trying to keep up with.

TAL: Is there a challenge now that Polsinelli is the size it is now, (758 lawyers, according to the latest Am Law 100 list), that the firm faces the same sort of rate or profitability pressures?

Nasharr: The answer is simply, yes, it has changed. And honestly it’s not for everybody. Some colleagues’ practices don’t need a New York or California office. Not that their billing rates have been pressured. We’ve had a modest increase now and then, but nobody is approaching four-digits here anywhere across the firm. Not even close. But to answer your question directly about has it changed: Yeah, it has.

But for the most part that change has created opportunities for our colleagues to expand their practices outside of Kansas City or Chicago because of the growth of the firm in other offices and the fact that we can present we’re a national firm with significant expertise in real estate transactions, health care or corporate, middle-market M&A transactions or technology and life sciences. We have the depth of resources and bench strength to be recognized nationally in that space. And that has benefited practices.

TAL: Before Polsinelli you were at a small boutique, Nasharr & Shea. You’re now more than a decade into Big Law life. What have you learned?

Nasharr: I kind of needed to do something because my clients were outgrowing me. They were loyal enough to ask me to do certain things, which I would do, but I would have to admit I don’t have the horses for this and I need to bring in a bigger firm with labor, transaction tax structure or IP capabilities. I joined Polsinelli so I would have more resources, and those resources have grown vastly. So I would say big firm life is what I needed to be of value to my clients. And I do like it. And frankly it’s been a privilege to see the firm grow to where it’s at, and it’s only allowed all of us here, myself included, to better serve our clients. The short answer is: Is it great to be in a big firm? Yeah. If you’re there for the right reasons. And I feel like I’ve had the right reasons.

TAL: Polsinelli announced earlier this month that longtime chair W. Russell Welsh will be replaced by F. Chase Simmons pending a vote in June. Were you considered for that spot?

Nasharr: No, I was aged out of the consideration. Chase is a great choice and I’m very happy and excited about that. We had a couple others. And without naming names there were four candidates. There was a nominating process and frankly we were all talked to in terms of being a shareholder and someone who votes on leadership transition. I was involved in what the plan would look like, but going back to what just happened, the four candidates were identified in December, but most of us could have guessed them earlier. The announcement of Chase being the one nominated for our shareholder vote for approval in about a week came as no real surprise.

But the point I want to get to is this: The three other candidates universally support Chase. Nobody has hard feelings or is upset about the choice. This was a very probing process. There was an email that came out from the other three saying here’s what we did, what we went through, and we all have our positions in the firm and are universally behind the decision that Chase has been nominated for our approval and we endorse it. There are not many places that would happen in my opinion.

TAL: What are your personal plans after you step down from leading the Chicago office and will you still be in charge of setting up the monthly cocktail hour at the office?

Nasharr: Oh yeah. Anybody can declare beer fest. That’s what it was from the beginning. Anybody can declare beer fest for any reason at any time. You just gotta buy the beers. And I did say there will be no “Tony retires” beer fest. That was part of my announcement on the transition. But “Tony’s still here” beer fest is fine. Bluntly, I’m going on a three-month sabbatical that the firm has for equity partners every seven years. I’m coincidentally slated for that this year. Mary Clare takes over tomorrow, and everyone is very excited about that. Then I hopefully get out of town Friday for a couple weeks and I’m doing some volunteer work in June and July and taking online courses to try and improve my technology skills. Then I’ll probably get on my motorcycle and ride a few places. But I’ll be back on Aug. 31.

All interviews are condensed and edited for style, grammar and clarity.