Philadelphia intellectual property boutique Volpe and Koenig has hired its first nonlawyer executive director.
Albert J. Simone has joined the firm from Pittsburgh-based Eckert Seamans Cherin & Mellott, where he spent five years as assistant executive director of the Philadelphia office.
Simone said he will be working closely with firm President Jay Halt and will be responsible for overseeing all firmwide operations, along with recruiting, training, organizational development and strategic planning.
Halt told The Legal that bringing Simone aboard represents the last step in a strategic plan the firm embarked on six years ago with the intention of transferring power from founders Anthony S. Volpe and C. Frederick Koenig III to a new group of shareholders.
Up until two years ago, Halt said, Volpe and Koenig had a firm administrator.
“About two years ago, during the financial crisis, our firm administrator retired and we had decided at that point that the management committee would run the firm until we were ready to take the next step, which was to bring in outside leadership to run the firm on a day-to-day basis,” Halt said.
According to Halt, one of the biggest challenges his firm has faced in recent years is a changing legal climate in which clients have begun to transfer certain administrative duties to their outside counsel while at the same time becoming more resistant to rate increases.
For example, Halt said, while a few years ago his firm might have been able to simply mail or email bills or documents to clients, who would then process and file them as they saw fit, many clients today have their own unique filing and docketing systems that they expect outside counsel to use.
“Essentially, we’re doing their filing and docketing for them,” Halt said. “We have had to hire people in-house to take care of these specialized functions. On the other side, we can’t raise rates like we might have 10 years ago — your annual 3 to 5 percent rate increases you used to see. We have to justify each increase for each person on each matter.”
These increased client demands require increased efficiency, which is part of the reason that Volpe and Koenig decided to hire someone whose sole job it is to run the firm’s day-to-day operations.
While Halt is the head of the firm, he said Simone is the non-shareholder chair of the management committee.
Halt said it’s his job as president to set the direction of the firm and to get the shareholders to buy in. Those overall goals then translate into business plans for the firm’s information technology, human resources, accounting, records and marketing managers, who, along with Simone, Halt and two other shareholders make up the management committee.
Simone will now be tasked with running the committee meetings and making sure the business plans are being implemented, according to Halt.
With the addition of Simone, Volpe and Koenig joins the growing list of firms that have assigned leadership and management duties to businesspeople rather than lawyers.
Most recently, in February of last year, Pepper Hamilton hired nonlawyer Scott Green, who had served as executive director of Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr since 2007, as its first CEO in a newly created position. He oversees both the firm’s legal and management functions.
While that move was rare for an Am Law 100 or 200 firm, the past few years have seen a few other firms put nonlawyers in leadership roles.
In 2008, Pittsburgh-based Pietragallo Gordon Alfano Bosick & Raspanti named Dennis Mehigan, a certified public accountant with no law background, as its first chief administrative officer.
In 2011, Blue Bell, Pa.-based insurance law firm Nelson Levine de Luca & Horst named Mary Anne Jaquay, a 10-year employee of Nelson Levine and the firm’s chief operating officer since 2008, as its executive vice president.
Simone, who has worked at law firms since the 1980s, said putting a nonlawyer in charge of some or all aspects of a firm’s operations can be a smart idea because it allows lawyers to focus on serving their clients, rather than running a business.
Simone said that when attorneys are able to recognize that they aren’t necessarily experts in all aspects of business, hiring a nonlawyer can be a “win-win” for everyone.
Halt said the firm did not necessarily set out to hire a nonlawyer.
“We were not specifically looking for a nonlawyer, but we were looking for someone who had a great deal of experience in all areas of running a firm,” Halt said. “Al happened to be the guy.”
Still, Halt, whose practice includes a concentration on the Far East and consequently a hectic travel schedule, agreed that having someone at the firm who can devote all of his time to the business and operational side is a huge help.
Halt said he noticed during the two years between the firm administrator’s retirement and Simone’s hiring that day-to-day operations took a backseat to priorities like serving clients and marketing the firm.
While firms can get away with that for a short period, it’s not a sustainable business model, Halt said.
And though some firms may have reservations about handing over the reins to someone other than an attorney, Halt said Volpe and Koenig benefited from the fact that it’s an IP boutique whose lawyers are accustomed to working alongside nonlawyer patent agents and technical advisers.
Hiring Simone was “not necessarily a big topic of angst for us,” Halt said. “It was just about having the best person in that role.”
Albert G. Bixler, member-in-charge of Eckert Seamans’ Philadelphia office, called Simone’s new position “an excellent opportunity.”
“Al is an absolutely terrific guy and a terrific manager,” Bixler said.