Less than a month after the unexpected death of managing partner Guy Cellucci, Philadelphia-based White and Williams has elected Patricia Santelle to a three-year term as its new managing partner and chair of its executive committee, effective immediately.

Santelle is the first woman to be elected to that position in the firm’s history.

Santelle was unavailable for comment Monday, but was quoted in a press release as saying she has “mixed emotions” about taking on the role.

“In the face of such tragic circumstances, I am deeply honored and also extremely humbled to be elected to this position,” Santelle said in the press release. “I was very close with Guy both professionally and personally, and shared in his vision for the firm. He was a valued mentor to me and I look forward to building on the plans he had begun but did not have the opportunity to complete.”

Cellucci died in his sleep Nov. 16. He was 59 years old.

He had taken over as managing partner of the firm in November 2010 after spending more than a decade leading the 230-lawyer firm’s commercial litigation department.

The firm’s nine-person executive committee, of which Cellucci was the chairman, met immediately following his death to discuss how the firm would operate moving forward and ultimately decided on Santelle.

Santelle joined White and Williams in 1990 and became a partner in 1995.

In 1999, she became co-chair of the firm’s insurance coverage and bad-faith group. In 2011, she was elected chair of the firm’s commercial litigation department, succeeding Cellucci.

Santelle is also a member of the firm’s executive and compensation committees.

White and Williams Executive Director Ken Gibb told The Legal on Monday that the decision was unanimous and called Santelle “a good, all-around organized and respected attorney at the firm who definitely garnered the support of everybody.”

Gibb said that despite the difficult circumstances that necessitated picking a new managing partner, choosing Santelle for the role was “fairly easy.”

“She had been with the firm for quite a while and had done a really good job of growing [the commercial litigation] practice area and had the respect of all partners within the group,” Gibb said.

Peter Parashes, chair of White and Williams’ subrogation department and a member of the executive committee, echoed those sentiments in a firm press release.

“We at White and Williams feel fortunate and proud that we have a partner of Patricia Santelle’s caliber,” Parashes said. “Patti is an exceptional human being, an outstanding lawyer and a person who possesses the intellect, leadership qualities and energy necessary to be successful in the position. We are confident that we will have continued growth and success under her leadership.”

Gibb said Santelle and Cellucci worked closely during the commercial litigation department leadership transition and that Cellucci often confided in Santelle about the firm’s direction.

According to Gibb, the firm acted quickly in naming a successor to Cellucci following his death, in part as a show of solidarity.

“I think that for our own best interest, there wasn’t going to be a whole lot that was gained by waiting, and we believed we had a strong group of people who could take over,” Gibb said, adding, “We thought it good to show not only the firm but our client base that we are strong, able to move forward and make a tough decision in certainly trying times, and that we’re all sticking together, supporting each other and are willing to do whatever it takes to be a successful firm.”

Gibb said that just before Cellucci’s death, the firm had announced its intention to develop a five-year strategic plan and had appointed Santelle to the subcommittee tasked with formulating that plan.

While the firm does not currently have a plan in place, Gibb said the firm had identified several growth areas under Cellucci and will continue moving forward with those expansions.

Specifically, Gibb said, the firm is looking to grow its Boston and New York offices, with a primary focus on business litigation and commercial litigation, along with general litigation.

Zack Needles can be contacted at 215-557-2493 or zneedles@alm.com. Follow him on Twitter @ZNeedlesTLI. •