Paul Eberle of Husch Blackwell. Courtesy photo

When Paul Eberle assumes the top leadership role at Husch Blackwell in February 2018, the non-lawyer manager will have spent less than two years working at the firm he presides over.

“This was not preordained by any means,” Eberle said about the Am Law 100 firm’s announcement this week that he has been elected as CEO.

Husch Blackwell also announced this week that Gregory Smith, a real estate partner in St. Louis currently serving as the firm’s CEO, will become chairman next year after Maurice Watson, a partner with a practice advising higher education institutions, steps down from that role, one he assumed on April 1, 2012.

Watson will work closely with Eberle and Smith during the next eight months on a leadership transition, according to the 617-lawyer Husch Blackwell, which has 17 offices throughout the country and ranked No. 96 on the most recent Am Law 100 list with $350 million in gross revenue for 2016.

Eberle joined Husch Blackwell on July 1, 2016, after the latter completed its acquisition of Whyte Hirschboeck Dudek, a 150-lawyer firm based in Milwaukee. Eberle had served as Whyte Hirschboeck’s CEO since 2009, making him one of the first non-lawyers to lead a large law firm, according to Husch Blackwell.

After the merger between both firms last summer, Eberle assumed the role of deputy CEO at Husch Blackwell and worked with the newly-combined firm’s leadership. Eberle said he has experience as an entrepreneur outside of the legal industry, something that he thinks will help in these disruptive times for those providing high-end legal services.

Prior to his role at Whyte Hirschboeck, Eberle helped start and lead Capital Data Inc., a Milwaukee-based technology, services and leasing company. After Eberle assumed the deputy CEO role at Husch Blackwell, he said “it was certainly a possibility” that he would ascend to the firm’s top leadership role, but not a certainty.

Instead, Eberle’s promotion had to be approved by the firm’s partnership, a move that occurred earlier this year, he said. Those partners have also embraced—rather than resisted—the changes that he believes will be necessary to fend off competition from rivals, Eberle said.

“Our firm has been open to adapting. There isn’t internal push back,” Eberle said about new pricing strategies for Husch Blackwell’s legal services. And that’s a good thing, because disruption in the legal industry, he added, is “only going to continue.”