Regional midsize firm McNees Wallace & Nurick is poised to make a long-expected leadership shuffle, as chairman David Kleppinger steps down from his position after 12 years.
Brian Jackson was elected as chairman Wednesday evening to take Kleppinger’s place. He will be part of a three-member management committee that also includes partners Donna Kreiser and Mark Van Blargan. The change will become official Nov. 1.
Jackson said he doesn’t yet know how long his own chairmanship will last, as the firm has annual elections, but he intends to serve for at least a few years. “We’ve had tremendous stability as an organization,” he said.
While the official vote just recently took place, Kleppinger said Jackson has been expected to fill his shoes for about a year. At least a year-and-a-half ago, Kleppinger announced to the firm that he planned not to seek re-election as chair of the firm in 2018.
A Careful Transition
The management committee proposed the new team about a year ago, but encouraged anyone else interested in running for the chair position to express interest and undergo the same training as Jackson. No one else came forward at the time, and no one challenged Jackson in the election, Kleppinger said. So over the past year, Jackson has continued to serve on the management committee and also met with Kleppinger and the firm’s chief operating officer to prepare for the transition.
Kleppinger will serve as chair emeritus of the firm and co-chair of McNees Strategic Solutions Group, the firm’s government affairs, advocacy and nonprofit consulting arm, which comprises several subsidiary businesses. He will also continue practicing law in the energy and environmental practice group, but he plans to retire at the end of 2020, he said.
Alongside his new role, Jackson is expected to continue practicing law as well, representing clients in collective bargaining and labor arbitrations. He has been a member of the firmwide management committee since 2005, and co-chair or chair of the labor and employment practice from 2002 to 2017.
Jackson and Van Blargan were the other two lawyers on the management committee when Kleppinger became chairman in 2006.
Van Blargan also chairs the health care practice group and is part of the education practice group. He stepped back from the management committee in 2015 in order to help create McNees’ 10-year strategic plan, which is intended to see it through to 2026.
That’s when Kreiser joined the management committee and became the first woman and first non-Harrisburg-based lawyer to serve on it. She co-chairs McNees’ financial services and public finance practice groups and also works within the public sector practice group, focusing on municipal and project finance law.
“I’ve been close to the position. I’ve never sat in that chair. It is a great source of comfort to know the other two people have prior experience in serving our firm as leadership in the management committee,” Jackson said.
Growth in Challenging Times
Under Kleppinger’s leadership, the firm has added to its head count incrementally—it had about 100 lawyers when he became chair, and now has about 130, he said—but it has also added several new practice groups and acquired multiple subsidiary businesses. Those newer niche practices include food and beverage, privacy and data security, and esports. The firm also added an office in Frederick, Maryland, in 2016, and the Lancaster office has grown from two lawyers to 22, Kleppinger said.
Jackson said they have been able to continue leading McNees as a group of three because they have added two C-level positions—a COO and a chief business development and marketing officer—as well as director-level business positions.
“Working through the Great Recession during those 12 years taught us a lot about operating a business during downward economic times,” Kleppinger said.
Jackson added: “Obviously in those 12 years there are many, many instances of our ability to not only weather the change, but to succeed and flourish and grow.”
In that time, Kleppinger noted, client demands have also escalated, and Jackson said the firm’s expectations for itself have evolved as a result. Going forward, Kleppinger said, the firm will continue to face generational changes that bring “exciting challenges,” as baby boomers increasingly cede influence to younger lawyers.
To that end, Jackson said, management is already anticipating the next transition. He said Van Blargan noted Wednesday evening that he does not intend to serve a long term on the management committee, and expects a younger lawyer to step up. To prepare them for that, the firm has elevated younger partners into practice leadership positions, Kleppinger said.
As for the future, Jackson said the firm has an opportunity to grow in terms of head count and reach. That may include opening offices in new locations, though he declined to say where, but more immediately includes expanding the client base outside the confines of McNees’ geography. The firm may also look to expand its non-legal ancillary services, he said.
“There are a lot of opportunities for us to expand our footprint, because of the caliber of attorneys we have, from a central Pennsylvania-based firm to a regional firm, and then a national practice,” he said.
However, Kleppinger and Jackson noted, for years the firm has refused to entertain merger suitors of equal or greater size, and that will not be changing. Even small firm acquisitions will be considered very carefully, they said, and have often been forgone in the past because cultures did not align.
“In the late 90s the pundits were saying the midsize law firm was dying. … We did a couple dances with firms who were interested in acquiring,” Kleppinger said. “None of those materialized.”
“The members have spoken and I’ve never even heard a wavering of that decision in the last 10 years,” Jackson said.