After leading his firm through a game-changing decade for the legal industry, John Soroko is stepping down from his post as chairman of Duane Morris.
Current vice chair and trial practice chief Matthew Taylor will take Soroko’s place as leader of the firm, with Thomas Servodidio, who now heads the firm’s employment, labor, benefits and immigration practice, assuming the role of vice chair.
The change of guard will take place Jan. 1, the firm announced Monday. Soroko will return to his litigation, appellate and mediation practice full time and will become chairman emeritus. The firm doesn’t have term limits on its leaders, he said, but 10 years made for a round number.
During Soroko’s tenure, the firm has grown revenue by 21 percent, to $454 million in 2016. Head count, meanwhile, has grown by about 100 to over 750 lawyers, according to the firm.
Duane Morris expanded its international footprint as well during Soroko’s decade, entering into joint ventures with Singapore firm Selvam and the Al Mashaikhi Law Firm in Oman and inking alliances with Mexico City law firm Miranda & Estavillo and Sri Lanka-based Gowers International Legal Consultants & Corporate Lawyers. The firm has added a presence in Shanghai, Sri Lanka, Mexico City, Myanmar, Taiwan and the Middle East, as well as in Silicon Valley.
Taylor said growth will continue over the decade, calling the firm’s expansion in Asia so far “a good start.” He said he plans to focus efforts on staying competitive in a crowded field of professional service providers, where clients are more discerning than ever.
A Disruptive Decade
“I took over right as the world started changing in a dramatic way for law firms,” Soroko said. The firm was coming off a year of major revenue growth in 2007, but things were about to change for the industry, not to mention the economy as a whole.
Soroko’s predecessor, Sheldon Bonovitz, had predicted in 2007 that law firms would suffer from larger market conditions, and that some would resort to layoffs.
So Soroko’s greatest accomplishment for the decade, he said, was maintaining financial growth and continuing to expand internationally, even as a major recession rocked the legal industry. Duane Morris was an early leader in paying attention to firm economics, Soroko said, which allowed for some security.
The firm had one year when revenue dropped—2008, Soroko’s first as chairman—but the decline was only 1.9 percent. All other years saw growth, with revenue notably increasing 6 percent in 2010, when profits per equity partner also increased by 10.5 percent.
Most recently, in 2016, the firm grew revenue by 4.6 percent, and PPP increased by 4.4 percent, to $940,000.
“We had always been known for being conservatively managed,” Soroko said. So as the recession hit, “we didn’t have to do anything dramatic.”
The firm wasn’t totally immune, as it had to cut staff like many others, including 15 staffers and seven marketers in 2008 and a group of 17 staff in 2013. But it avoided mass layoffs and cuts to associate or summer associate classes, Soroko said.
Difficult financial conditions can make for a good environment to invest, he said. Pulling from firms that disbanded in the recession, Duane Morris added 19 lawyers from Thelen in New York in 2008, and in 2009, took more than 50 from Wolf Block.
Going forward, Taylor said, “It’s only going to get more competitive.”
The recession is long past, but U.S. law firms are now dealing with increased competition from international firms, accounting firms and nonlegal competitors, Taylor said.
And, Soroko added, clients are no longer putting up with the rate increases they tolerated from 1990 to 2007.
“We will not go back to that very placid period,” he said.
Within that environment, Taylor said, Duane Morris is “absolutely looking to grow,” particularly in New York, Texas and California, as well as in Asia, London and perhaps Mexico City. The transactional practices are where he expects the most growth, especially in real estate and private equity. But he doesn’t have a target head count in mind, he said.
Taylor said much of the hard work has already been done by his predecessors.
“My job is primarily to support the lawyers who are already here, but also to attract and recruit lawyers who want to join our firm,” he said.
To do that, the firm will have to remain attractive to companies that are in their own wave of consolidation, and that are looking to rein in their outside legal spending. That means better project management and more alternative fee arrangements, Taylor said.
“It’s hard to say where we will be in 10 years,” Taylor said. But he hopes the firm will be representing some of the largest companies in the country and taking on more high-profile matters, he said, while maintaining what the firm calls a “culture of collaboration.”“Communicators thrive at this firm,” he said. “As the law firm gets bigger, it’s a challenge to keep law firm culture.”