Morgan, Lewis & Bockius has announced Anthony Licata has joined the firm as its first chief operating officer, effective Tuesday. Licata comes to the firm from Dechert, where he also served as COO.

According to a Morgan Lewis press release, Licata will be based in Philadelphia but will be responsible for overseeing the firm’s global operations, including finance, information technology, human resources and operations.

As part of his role as COO, Licata will assume the responsibilities of the firm’s executive director, Frank Fee, who is retiring, the firm said.

The addition of Licata is part of a new management team at the firm that will be spearheaded by Jami Wintz McKeon, who is set to take over as chair of Morgan Lewis from Francis M. Milone this October.

In January, the firm named New York-based partner David W. Pollak managing partner of operations, joining Steven Wall, the managing partner of practice.

Licata said he could not pass up the opportunity to “get in on the ground floor” at Morgan Lewis as it enters its leadership transition.

Licata said that, while the definition of his COO role will be substantially similar at Morgan Lewis to what it was at Dechert, he was enticed by the challenge of helping a larger law firm navigate an increasingly complex legal industry.

“The professional services business model has been intact for a long period of time, but it was never a business model that had multibillion-dollar firms and global footprints in mind,” Licata said, noting that law firms are now starting to follow the lead of accounting firms, which have had to learn how to adapt their management styles to the expanding scope of their businesses.

“Law firms are going that way as well,” Licata said. “Organizations are much bigger, much more complex and they’re doing business in a lot of geographic areas.”

Licata said his job will be to help Morgan Lewis adapt to these changes in the service of providing better value to its clients, which include some of the largest and most complex companies in the world.

Those clients are often on the cutting edge of best business practices, Licata said, and now expect the law firms they use to be sophisticated businesses as well.

McKeon agreed, saying meeting clients’ evolving demands for better value is part of what prompted Morgan Lewis to expand the role of executive director to COO.

“In this new world, it’s a much more externally-facing role than it was 20 years ago,” McKeon said.

What that means is Licata will be regularly interacting with clients’ COOs to determine the best and most efficient ways to deliver legal services, a responsibility that was not part of the previous executive director role, according to McKeon.

“It’s a change in the way the legal profession is moving,” McKeon said. “Our clients are hiring extremely sophisticated people to help them manage their relationships with outside law firms so law firms need to be smart and hire people who really belong at the table.”

McKeon said Licata has the experience and credibility to work closely with clients’ business professionals to, for example, come up with alternative fee arrangements.

According to McKeon, after initial reluctance on the part of both firms and clients to move away from the traditional billable hour following the recession, more and more clients are demanding AFAs now.

“The more sophisticated clients are very focused on that because they realize and we realize the limitation of the billable hour,” McKeon said, adding, “We spend a lot of time and effort on partnering with clients to try new and different arrangements.”

McKeon said Licata will also be “heavily involved” in working with the firm’s lawyers and business professionals on improving project management.

According to McKeon, bringing aboard a business professional like Licata, who is not an attorney, to manage the firm’s business and operational strategies was a must, particularly since McKeon, Pollak and Wall are all still practicing lawyers.

Licata had a similar take on the roles of nonlawyers at large firms.

“As firms grow, it’s becoming increasingly important to put skill sets on the ground that wake up every day and worry solely about running the business properly and that’s really the only charge I have,” Licata said.

Licata joined Dechert in 2008 as chief financial officer and was named COO of the firm in July of last year. Before going to Dechert, he was vice president of finance and administration for Hospitals Insurance Co.

Dechert CEO Daniel O’Donnell said in an emailed statement that Licata “made many contributions to Dechert over his six-year tenure.”

“His most important contribution was putting in place an executive management team who have our full support,” O’Donnell said. “We are confident that they will continue to execute the firm’s vision and strategy.”

Licata said he’s proud of the team he built at Dechert but noted that one of the attractive things about Morgan Lewis was that it already had a contingent of high-level business executives managing the firm’s operations on a day-to-day basis.

McKeon said Licata is well-suited to the role of overseeing those functions and finding innovative ways to improve them.

“He’s a very dynamic, forward-thinking guy,” McKeon said.

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