Lash Harrison, Ford & Harrison managing partner Lash Harrison, FordHarrison managing partner (Photo: John Disney/ ALM)

After 40 years leading FordHarrison, C. Lash Harrison is stepping down as managing partner. Over that time FordHarrison has grown from 14 lawyers in Atlanta to become a national labor and employment firm with almost 200 lawyers in 28 offices, including three affiliate firms.

The firm has elected Orlando, Florida-based Allen McKenna as Harrison’s successor. McKenna has been a member of the firm’s executive committee for the last three years and heads its health care practice.

“Our firm has been so fortunate to have had Lash as our managing partner for so long,” McKenna said. “His vision and steady leadership has guided the firm through periods of incredible growth as well as through the Great Recession.”

Maintaining stability and reassuring clients is top of mind when firms transition beyond their first generation of leadership, McKenna acknowledged, adding, “We’re going to keep doing for the next 40 years what we’ve been doing for the past 40 years.”

McKenna, 59, joined FordHarrison in 2000 when his labor and employment boutique, Garwood, McKenna, Wolf & Finnigan, merged with the firm to become its Orlando office. He will continue operating out of Orlando with frequent trips to Atlanta. He and his wife, Beth, are the parents of triplet boys, who will graduate from college in May, and twin girls, who are in high school.

Harrison will maintain some leadership responsibility as chairman of FordHarrison’s executive committee. Asked how long he will fill that role, he replied, “356 days. My plan is to work myself out of a job over the next year.”

“We’ve been working on this for a couple of years,” Harrison added. “We like to do things in an orderly manner.”

The firm formed a search committee of partners to determine his successor. It chose McKenna, who was then unanimously approved by the firm’s seven-member executive committee.

While FordHarrison’s executive committee chooses the managing partner, according to its partnership rules, the members put their choice to a vote of the equity partners, who also approved McKenna.

“Since this was a big transition for us, we wanted to have everyone involved,” Harrison said.

McKenna’s term as managing partner is for four years, but Harrison said it could be renewed. The firm has no mandatory retirement age.

More Leadership Changes

In another big change, FordHarrison has recruited Meg Holman as its first chief operating officer, as part of a plan to spread leadership duties among more people, Harrison said.

“We’re working on pushing down a lot of the responsibility and having more involvement by other executive committee members,” he said.

Holman has returned to the firm from King & Spalding, where she had overseen its firmwide professional development programs since leaving FordHarrison three years ago.

“I like change. The opportunity to work with Lash and Al this year—and then Al going forward—was something I really couldn’t walk away from,” she said.

“We lured her back,” Harrison said. ”We interviewed a number of people, and she was the best qualified.”

Holman started as an associate in FordHarrison’s airline group in 1999, then in 2005 launched its professional development program focused on associate recruitment, training, mentoring and advancement.

She became the firm’s chief strategic officer in 2010, supporting Harrison and the executive committee on all aspects of firm management and serving as a liaison between leadership and administrative operations. During that time, Holman earned a Master of Laws in firm management from George Washington University.

Unlike Harrison, McKenna plans to maintain his practice, handling all aspects of labor and employment law, while serving as managing partner—part of the rationale for adding Holman as COO to work with him and the executive committee.

A key requirement for the COO job, Harrison said, was that the person be a lawyer, so the managing partner would not to have to give up practicing full-time.

McKenna said it remained to be seen how much time he’d spend managing the firm vs. practicing law. “Lash has done this from the very beginning. People are used to having him make decisions. … One of the challenges is to figure out how to do everything he does without him here,” he said.

“We’ve got Meg, and we’re going to get the executive committee more involved in decision-making to do everything Lash has done on his own in the past,” he added.

McKenna said he plans to focus on the firm’s service to clients in his new role, adding that he considers FordHarrison’s “commitment to its clients” one of the its distinguishing qualities.

“We want to make sure our clients feel they are getting the best value for what they’ve spent,” he said.

FordHarrison has grown to become a national firm under Harrison’s long tenure, but it is still smaller than competitors such as Littler Mendelson, which with almost 1,000 lawyers is the nation’s largest labor and employment firm, or Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart, also based in Atlanta, which is the second-largest with 760 lawyers.

Harrison said the firm’s size, with 77 partners and almost 200 lawyers, makes it unique. “We are large enough so we can handle any problem and small enough so we know each other,” he said.

Foundation to Build On

Harrison, along with William F. Ford and 12 other lawyers, broke off from Fisher & Phillips—which has also grown to become a national labor and employment firm—to start Ford, Harrison, Sullivan & Lowery in 1978.

The founders shortened the name to Ford & Harrison soon after. “Two names were easier to remember,” Harrison said. Ford died of a respiratory condition in 1990.

Harrison has been the managing partner from the start. “It just evolved that way,” he said. “I put the deal together, and that’s how it worked out.”

“I have a bunch of children. I figured if I could manage children, I could manage lawyers. It’s the same deal,” he added.

“It is bittersweet to move on from this role,” Harrison said. “I hope I’ve laid the foundation in our firm and our community to build upon in the years ahead.”

“Al has shown he’s more than capable of leading the firm. He values the firm’s commitment to our clients as well as our attorneys and staff,” he said.

Harrison has been recognized over the years for his innovative thinking as a law firm leader. Among other initiatives, FordHarrison eliminated the billable hours requirement for first-year associates and started a skills development program for them almost a decade ago.

Promoting pro bono and diversity has also become an important part of FordHarrison’s culture under Harrison’s leadership. The firm funds fellowships at The Atlanta Legal Aid Society and through Equal Justice Works, based in Washington.

With the aim of promoting diversity from the top, one of the executive committee’s members is always a diversity partner, and the firm has developed two programs for partners—the Leadership Academy and LEAP—to foster, respectively, their leadership and client development skills.

Harrison also has served in a number of leadership roles in Atlanta’s legal and professional communities, including Emory University, where he earned an undergraduate degree and then a law degree in 1965. He currently serves on the Emory Law Dean’s Advisory Board and received Emory Law’s Distinguished Alumni Award in 2015.