Jami WIntz McKeon
Jami WIntz McKeon ()

Before she took over as chairwoman of Morgan, Lewis & Bockius on Oct. 1, 2014, Jami Wintz McKeon was already in the throes of putting together a transformative mass lateral hire that would ultimately bring more than 500 attorneys to the firm and catapult it to the top of the list of largest law firms based on U.S. attorney head count.

And then, that same fall, she met the head of 80-lawyer Singapore law firm Stamford Law Corp. The two began talking about whether a merger—the first of its kind between U.S. and Singapore firms—would make sense.

Less than six months into McKeon’s term, Morgan Lewis has gone from 1,400 lawyers to more than 2,000, with an estimated $2 billion in revenue.

“In those six months, she has taken our firm from a strong, U.S.-based corporate law firm with some great practices to a firm that is literally the talk of the global legal community,” said partner and fellow firm manager Steven Wall.

Wall worked closely with McKeon on the Singapore deal, announced in the first quarter of 2015, and the 500-lawyer deal that brought the bulk of dissolved Bingham McCutchen to the firm as of Nov. 24, 2014.

McKeon had a bit of a head start on her role as chairwoman. She was elected in October 2013 to begin a one-year transition period between longtime chairman Francis Milone and herself. And in February 2014, several months before she was set to take over the firm, McKeon met with the firm’s advisory board to lay out her strategy and agenda.

The agenda had broader aspirational goals, such as “operational excellence,” innovation, strengthening the firm’s competitive position and making every client experience uniformly “exceptional.” How that would play out wasn’t exactly clear. There was no crystal ball, after all—even one that could see just a few months down the road.

“The way things unfolded, we had the opportunity to address that faster than I thought,” McKeon said.

She said it was in some ways frustrating that she met Stamford Law founding director Suet-Fern Lee in the midst of the Bingham talks. But Singapore was an area the firm was “intensely focused on,” and the opportunity to be the only U.S. law firm to merge with a Singapore firm and to be able to practice local law there was something Morgan Lewis couldn’t ignore.

McKeon said it wasn’t her goal to come in and “make a splash.” She said that would have been a mistake. Opportunities should be identified and actions taken in a deliberate, methodical and persistent way, she said. But, at the same time, leaders have to spot opportunities and be bold enough to seize them, she said.

“It was not my goal to come in and do in the first quarter of my first year as chair two fairly bold things, but they were the right things for our strategic plan,” McKeon said. “I was unwilling to shy away from them simply because we were busy doing a few other things at the time.”

Wall has known McKeon since she started as a first-year at the firm in 1981, when he was a summer associate. He watched her rise up the ranks of the firm, building significant client relationships, such as with JPMorgan Chase, and taking over as head of litigation, the firm’s largest practice group. McKeon was running the litigation department before she took over as chairwoman. And Wall had led the labor and employment practice before taking over day-to-day operations of the firm, first under Milone and again under McKeon.

During the height of the Bingham talks, the two were in contact almost hourly, he said.

“Jami is phenomenal in her ability to connect with people,” Wall said. “She’s also very strong at recognizing the strengths of the people that she surrounds herself with.”

Wall described McKeon as a charismatic leader who makes everyone in the firm feel as though they are critical to its mission. She makes people want to do even more than they would normally aim to achieve.

A lot of her impact as a manager, Wall said, comes from the fact that McKeon still practices law. So when she talks to a partner about client conflicts, rate pressures or how crucial client service is, she has credibility, Wall said.

Managing a firm of Morgan Lewis’ size and handling one of the firm’s biggest books of business “makes for a hard life,” Wall said, but that is “what makes her different.”

“I used to say Fran [Milone] was the single hardest-working lawyer I ever met, but, candidly, Jami takes it to a whole other level,” he said.

McKeon’s efforts in 2014 didn’t make Wall realize she was a great leader. That happened a long time ago.

In the early 2000s, McKeon moved her family, including two young children, to San Francisco to lead Morgan Lewis’ efforts to integrate 150 lawyers from disbanded Brobeck Phleger & Harrison. She stayed for 10 years, and during that time took over as head of the litigation group and built an eight-figure practice.

“We have many successful partners, but the one characteristic that I have always believed is most important to being a

successful law firm leader is one of selflessness,” Wall said. “There is no better example of selflessness than taking your two younger kids, who are in elementary school at the time, and moving her entire family to San Francisco.”

Back in Philadelphia, some of that California experience definitely carried over in putting together and integrating two sizeable acquisitions.

Much of 2014 was spent making sure the firm’s existing partners were given accurate information and assured that firm leadership wasn’t going to take its eye off the ball that was the existing Morgan Lewis machine.

“Morgan Lewis has retained a very strong culture even as it has gotten bigger and bigger,” McKeon said. “And people wanted to look at how these deals would affect that.”

It may seem like a gross oversight that this article has yet to mention that McKeon did all of this while being a woman. That is a bit tongue-in-cheek, of course, and there is no doubt that a woman leading an international law firm is rare to say the least. But, even for McKeon herself, that fact was somewhat of an afterthought.

“Before I took the role, I didn’t think it mattered at all,” McKeon said. “I don’t think I thought for five seconds, ‘Wow, I’m going to be running the firm, and I’m a woman.’”

But after word got out that she would be leading the firm, there was a “tsunami of attention” paid to the fact that she is, indeed, a woman.

“It made me sit up and think about it,” McKeon said. “Given where the industry is, that is a notable fact.”

McKeon said she certainly didn’t think in 1981, when she began practicing, that this would still be an issue in 2015—if she even thought about it at all.

But the attention has been thought-provoking and has given McKeon an opportunity to intersect with groups of people she might not otherwise have met. She heard from legal and business leaders across the country—men and women alike—congratulating her and expressing how encouraged they were that, at least at Morgan Lewis, gender wasn’t a barrier to success.

“When there are so few of you, people do notice,” she said.

And, for better or worse, the attention on her success up to the point of being named chairwoman meant all eyes were on McKeon as she tackled the role.

“Anyone who takes this job wants to do a great job at it,” she said. “So you don’t do more because you are the first woman, or the first person with red hair.

“But I think you do feel that weight and that responsibility that you are the subject of more attention. People are looking more closely at you. You feel a responsibility—an added responsibility … to make sure you do things well, because you want there to be the opportunities for others and you don’t want to disadvantage anyone else by not exceeding at the highest level.”

By all accounts, McKeon has successfully taken Morgan Lewis to new heights, and did so faster and on a larger scale than perhaps anyone expected.

“It was all her,” Wall said.

All her. 

Gina Passarella can be contacted at 215-557-2494 or at gpassarella@alm.com. Follow her on Twitter @GPassarellaTLI.