A ‘person of character’

Army veteran takes command of Virginia’s largest law firm

  •  | 
Print this page by Robert Powell
Article image
Photos by Rick DeBerry

A trial lawyer who honed his leadership skills in the U.S. Army is now the chairman of McGuireWoods LLP, Virginia’s largest law firm.

In December, Jonathan P. Harmon, 52, succeeded Richard Cullen, a white-collar defense attorney known nationally for representing high-profile clients. He had led the firm for 11 years.

On Harmon’s recommendation, the law firm’s board named J. Tracy Walker IV as its managing partner, succeeding Thomas R. Cabaniss. Walker had served since 2015 as the firm’s deputy managing partner and head of its litigation practice. 

Under the direction of Cullen and Cabaniss, the firm grew from 750 lawyers in 15 offices to 1,100 in 23 locations, including Texas, California and London. It also has a presence in Asia through an affiliation with Shanghai-based FuJae Partners.

McGuireWoods had revenue of $682 million in 2016, the latest year that figures were available. The firm’s profit per partner, an industry standard for profitability, was about $1 million.

“Tom Cabaniss and I started seriously focusing on identifying our successors over the last three years. From the start, Jon was on our short list. There was no  ‘one thing’ that drove the decision. Rather, Jon has a host of qualities that led us to ask him if he wanted to be chairman and ultimately to recommend him to the partnership,” Cullen says.

“He is a great litigator and trial lawyer. And in our system, the chairman keeps a law practice. He is also an empathetic leader, easily able to motivate his partners and associates. And most importantly, he is a person of character, and that trait is fundamental in leading a law firm.”

Under McGuireWoods’ leadership structure, the chairman heads the firm’s executive committee. He is the face of the firm and is responsible for its big-picture strategy and vision.  The managing partner is in charge of running McGuireWoods’ day-to-day operations in a manner consistent with the chairman’s vision.

“My role is much in the vein of a CEO in a corporate structure,” Walker says. “As you would expect, Jon and I talk frequently. Jon is a truly amazing lawyer and leader. There is no one I would rather work for or with.”

Before becoming chairman, Harmon had led the law firm’s Business Securities Litigation Department since 2015, representing Fortune 500 companies in complex cases.

Harmon has spent his legal career at McGuireWoods since graduating from the University of Texas Law School. Also a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, Harmon is a combat veteran, having served as a first lieutenant in the Army’s 1st Cavalry Division in the first Gulf War, Operation Desert Storm.

“I really learned how to be a leader in the military. I think, above all else, Richard was looking for a good leader,” Harmon says.

He is the first African-American to lead McGuireWoods. “Becoming the first African-American to lead our firm has been incredibly exciting and exhilarating, but also somewhat saddening, because the legal industry is very underrepresented when it comes to lawyers of color,” Harmon says. 

In recent years, the firm has included diversity and inclusion among its six core corporate values. It has created a Diversity Action Council, led by the managing partner.  The firm also offers scholarships to law students from diverse backgrounds and is involved in an outreach program where it encourages high school students to consider legal careers.

The McGuireWoods chairman also participates in another type of outreach. A member of Faith Landmarks Ministries, Harmon has led prison Bible study classes for several years. “It’s a passion of mine. I miss it when I don’t get to go,” he says.

Harmon met his wife, Rhonda, at a Bible study class while they both were in the military. Also a lawyer, she was part of a legal team including Tim Kaine (now Virginia’s junior U.S. senator) that pursued a racial discrimination lawsuit against Nationwide Insurance on behalf of Richmond-based Housing Opportunities Made Equal. She made the closing argument in the case. HOME won a $100.5 million verdict that was reversed on appeal. The two sides later reached a settlement.

Rhonda Harmon stopped practicing law after their second child was born. The Harmons have four children, two boys ages 17 and 21, and two girls, ages 13 and 19. “My two oldest are away in college, and my two youngest are still in school here. So, yes, I will have three young people in college soon,” Jon Harmon says with a laugh.

Virginia Business interviewed Harmon at the law firm’s offices in Richmond on Dec. 18. Following is an edited transcript of that conversation.

Virginia Business: Tell me about your vision for McGuireWoods’ future.
Harmon: I think Richard and Tom did an incredible job transforming our firm over the 11-plus years they were here from what I’ll call a super-regional firm to a truly national firm … I believe our next step is to take our incredibly successful firm and become a national powerhouse. That encompasses a lot of different things, and it’s certainly not something that is going to happen quickly or easily. But I really believe with the quality of people and the level of excellence that has been instilled in our firm … we will ultimately be successful.

VB: The legal profession has changed considerably since the recession. How do you see it changing going forward?
Harmon: I think some of the things we’ve seen are going to be some things we’ll continue to see. As you know, technology has played a huge role in how we deliver legal services to our clients and the expectations of our clients and how they judge our results … A large part of our strategic plan is innovation … [The Financial Times recently named the firm] the third-most innovative firm in North America. We’re really proud of that. Regardless of what changes come, we’ll be ready to adapt.

VB: So, you are now at 1,100 lawyers. Do you have a goal as to how big you want to be?
Harmon: I don’t have a goal in terms of the number of lawyers we have. Our growth has never been in regards to numbers. Our growth has always been in response to our clients. The right size is the size that allows us to be successful with serving our clients. We are always looking for opportunities to grow in the right places in the right spaces.

VB:  You talked about becoming a national powerhouse. What would tell you that you have arrived?
Harmon: I think it is a component of three things. We would be recognized, sought after and as a result of those two things … the profitability of the firm would increase as well. There are obviously a lot of different measures for being sought after, but what we shoot for … is solving our clients’ most complex problems.

VB: You are the first African-American to head the firm. What is the significance of that?
Harmon: Becoming the first African-American to lead our firm has been incredibly exciting and exhilarating, but also somewhat saddening, because the legal industry is very underrepresented when it comes to lawyers of color … There were many great women and men who could have been the chairperson at this firm very easily. I’m really humbled and honored to be selected. That selection didn’t come just by my own doing. As with anything when you are the first in your organization, there are a lot of people who went before me … I grew up on Long Island, and I went to see my grandmother in Brooklyn. She was a big Jackie Robinson fan, and she would go to the [Brooklyn Dodgers] games. She would tell me stories about Jackie Robinson. … He became the first in his field [to break the color barrier, but] he didn’t do that by himself. And I feel the same way. There are some lawyers who are still here that are trailblazers who helped to bring me here. One of them was George Martin [the managing partner of the firm’s Richmond office who was the first African-American rector of the University of Virginia board of visitors] … I recognize I didn’t do this on my own. Many people have paved the way for me. I am excited about it, and hope it will inspire people in other places.

VB: You have a number of programs to recruit and retain minorities. Tell us about that.
Harmon: We’re proud of where we are. Thirty percent of our leadership are either lawyers of color or are women, but we can still do better … We elevated diversity and inclusion a few years ago to be a core value. We also put together a Diversity Action Council [which] allows us to take a closer look, department by department, on how we are doing from a diversity standpoint, and we will continue to do that. We have a ways to go. We are not there yet, but we’ve made significant strides.

VB: Are you reaching out to high schools or middle schools [for potential recruits]?
Harmon: We do. There is a program [Partnership For The Future] that identifies high school students here in the Richmond and Petersburg areas who have an interest in law. We partner with them to help bring some of them on to work with McGuireWoods. We have one-on-one mentoring with some of them … who may not have the opportunity otherwise to experience something like this because of where they live. And that’s what really struck me about this program. There’s a subset of people in any major metropolitan area who are very talented who may never get exposed to something like this, like showing up every day and wearing a tie. I remember there was a young man who was here for his first day. You could see the trepidation in his face … He wasn’t used to seeing this many people wearing suits. Bringing him in and getting him acclimated and teaching him about how you talk to people [made an impression on him]. I still get emails from this gentleman. He has graduated from college now. He’s not in law, but he’s successful. Our lawyers enjoy giving back to the community in that way. And that will continue without a doubt.

VB: Will Richard [Cullen] be a tough act to follow?
Harmon: Richard has, in my humble opinion — and this is no way putting down any other great leaders we’ve had — been the best leader this firm has ever had. I’ll never be Richard, but I’ve got to be who I am and the best I can in this position.

VB: One of the things that Cullen is known for is his connection to the Republican Party. That sort of established an image of McGuireWoods as a Republican firm. Will that continue?
Harmon: Richard was unashamedly very proud of being a Republican. We have an equal number of people who are not Republicans … I view it as being a firm of both Republicans and Democrats. I don’t think you’ll see me as being in one camp or the other, which is my personality and how I operate.

VB: Was there a transition that’s been going on for some time before your announcement was made?
Harmon: Yes, what happened was during the middle of the year, Richard announced internally that I was going to be the recommended choice for chairman. Over the remainder of this year, I began a process of meeting with Richard and going around to all of our offices and meeting with partners and our clients. But the way our partnership agreement works is that the official vote occurred on Dec. 4. That was when the baton was passed.

VB: What has been your most memorable case?
Harmon: Each case has something that is very unique about it and makes it memorable. … One case I tried years ago was memorable because it was my first really complicated and complex case I took to trial. It was in East Texas. A company insider had swindled about a million dollars from our client and had been acquitted [in a criminal case]. We were in the same venue trying to convince the jury [in a civil trial] that he in fact did do it … and we won. There were about 20,000 exhibits. 

VB: Did you end up getting any of the money back?
Harmon: We didn’t get back much, but we got some. The gentleman who was the head of the company’s general counsel office was very principled. [Speaking of the defendant], he said, “You’re not going to steal from us.” His point was that he had tens of thousands of other employees, and they’re watching to see what we’re going to do about this.

VB: How does your military background affect your legal practice?
Harmon: My military training —both during peacetime and at war — really [prepared me] to be a good leader, how to come into a situation to lead people who are smarter than you and have been there longer. It has affected everything in my legal practice.

VB: What made you decide to go to West Point?
Harmon: Either the beginning of my senior or junior year, all of these academies came to me. I was encouraged by my father to apply to one of the schools. I decided to pick West Point, went to visit and after a lot of thought and prayer, I thought that was where I should go. Looking back, I would no doubt make the same decision again. 

VB: When did you decide to go to law school?
Harmon: It was around the time I [was deployed during] Desert Storm. I came back and still had another year [in the Army]. My personal opinion is that you’ll never work in an organization with greater camaraderie than the military …  you have to make sure you do everything you’re supposed to so your buddy doesn’t perish. [But] when I got deployed, my wife had no idea for months about what was going on. [Communication] is better now with cell phones. I wanted to raise a family, so I decided I would get out. It was a tough decision.

VB: You teach Bible classes for [incarcerated teens and adults]. How did that get started?
Harmon: I go to Faith Landmarks Ministries here in town. After I had been there for a year, I heard they had prison volunteer ministries. I’ve always liked working with kids. They had an opportunity to start working in Bon Air [with young men at what is now the Central Admission and Placement Unit of the Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice]. I started there in 1997, and I just loved it. I grew up in a really loving family. My mother and father were wonderful. But I realized, a lot people didn’t grow up that way. [Teaching a Bible class] helped me help those young men, most of whom were African-American. I’ve expanded that to men in the Petersburg federal penitentiary. It’s a passion of mine; I miss it when I don’t get to go.

VB: What do you get from that?
Harmon: It’s interesting, because I feel that I get more out of it than they do. It is my privilege and honor to go out and give. I believe when you’ve given a lot, much is required of you. When you give out, you get more back. I think I would be a less productive lawyer and a less happy person if I didn’t give back what I have received.

showhide shortcuts