Pepper Hamilton Chairman Louis J. Freeh, a former judge and director of the FBI, was in a New Hampshire hospital Tuesday after suffering serious injuries in a one-car accident in Vermont.
As the public and the firm awaited word on Freeh’s condition, his absence was a reminder of how firms must plan for emergencies and structure management to ensure any temporary leadership void is covered.
According to a statement from the Vermont State Police, Freeh, 64, was traveling south on Vermont Route 12 in Barnard in his 2010 Grey GMC Yukon when he drove off the east side of the roadway, striking a mailbox, a row of shrubs and finally coming to rest on the side of a tree. Freeh was wearing his seat belt at the time of the crash, which occurred shortly after noon on Monday.
The state police said he was “seriously injured” and was transported by helicopter to Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in New Hampshire.
According to a report and photos of the accident scene by the Vermont Standard newspaper, Freeh had to be cut out of the wreckage. The paper reported that there did not appear to be any skid marks at the scene.
“We learned last evening that Judge Louis J. Freeh, chair of the law firm Pepper Hamilton and former director of the FBI, was seriously injured in a car crash in Vermont yesterday,” Pepper Hamilton said in a statement issued Tuesday morning. “We have no further details on his condition. Our primary concern is for Judge Freeh’s full and quick recovery. Our prayers and thoughts are with him, his wife, Marilyn, and his family.”
Pepper Hamilton Chief Marketing Officer Daniel Pulka said Tuesday afternoon that there were no updates on Freeh’s condition. A call to the Vermont State Police was not immediately returned.
An updated statement from the Vermont State Police on Tuesday posted on its website said the investigation was continuing but that the initial review showed drugs and alcohol were not factors in the accident. The cause of the crash remains under investigation pending additional interviews, according to the statement, which said additionally that Freeh “continues to receive treatment for his injuries at DHMC.”
While Pulka didn’t want to comment much beyond the firm’s statement, he did say the firm is managed by an executive committee, which Freeh leads, and that there is a full team of executives who share in the firm’s leadership responsibilities.
Pulka said the same goes for Freeh’s client matters, which Pulka said are being well managed by the team of attorneys who work on those matters while Freeh focuses on his recovery.
Dealing with an unexpected void of leadership, for however long a period of time, is something that can catch firms off guard if they didn’t plan for such an event before it ever happened.
“It’s to be expected that somebody will get sick, injured or die in your firm because that’s life,” said Gina Rubel of Furia Rubel Communications. “So the reality is, by having a strong crisis communication plan, it serves as a road map.”
Having a plan in place takes the onus off of those filling in and can remove any panic about what to do when a firm leader is not there, she said. Many large firms have a crisis communication plan in place to instruct on what needs to be done in the event of a crisis and how that situation will be communicated to the various stakeholders, including employees, clients and the public, Rubel said.
But even if firms don’t have a plan in place, the larger ones are typically more easily able to handle an unexpected situation that affects leadership because there are simply more people in management to fill the void, Rubel said.
“In a big company, there are enough layers of people and there is enough thought leadership and knowledge base that, truthfully, they don’t skip a beat, they shouldn’t skip a beat,” Rubel said.
It is the smaller firms, many of which don’t plan ahead for such situations, that can be “devastated” by unexpected events.
LawVision consultant Joseph B. Altonji in Chicago agreed that depth of leadership is something that can make for a much smoother transition period when a firm faces an unexpected void in leadership.
In a situation like the one facing Pepper Hamilton, where there are multiple layers of leadership, the temporary absence of Freeh could potentially impact certain strategic, “visionary” projects, but would not impact day-to-day matters, Altonji said.
“There are firms that don’t have a degree of leadership depth where it really is about an individual,” Altonji said. “If they get taken out for whatever reason it can have a very, very devastating impact.”
Pepper Hamilton has worked over the past almost two years to transition the firm into its next generation of leadership, also reconfiguring how it is managed.
Freeh was named chairman of Pepper Hamilton in February 2013, five months after merging his law firm, Freeh, Sporkin & Sullivan, into Pepper Hamilton. Freeh’s consulting group, Freeh Group International Solutions, also merged into Pepper Hamilton. The two law firms got to know one another through their joint work conducting an internal investigation on Penn State’s behalf into the university’s handling of the Jerry Sandusky sex-abuse scandal.
His ascension to chairman was part of a number of management changes at Pepper Hamilton that included the hiring of a nonlawyer CEO, Scott Green, to run the day-to-day operations of the firm.
That position reports to Freeh. And the role of executive partner was molded into a managing partner role and turned over to labor and employment partner Thomas J. Cole Jr.