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Lawyer or boss?

Law firm leaders have to juggle two roles

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Woody Fowler was immersed in a high-profile case when he
became CEO of Williams Mullen. Photo by Rick DeBerry

Calvin “Woody” Fowler took over as president and CEO of the Richmond-based law firm Williams Mullen  on April 1, literally two days after the first of several lawsuits was filed seeking to keep his client, Sweet Briar College, from shuttering its doors.

Instead of spending his first few months as CEO focusing on strategic plans and his vision for the firm, Fowler was working seven days a week, sometimes as long as 16 hours a day. As lead trial and appellate attorney on the case, Fowler argued before the Supreme Court of Virginia.

While representing the college, he made time to visit a few of Williams Mullen’s 11 offices, dine with clients and speak at a youth awards banquet for the nonprofit Richmond Sports Backers. (The Sweet Briar case ended with a settlement that will allow the school to remain open through at least next another year with a new president and board of directors and a badly needed infusion of money.)

Fowler’s experience is an example of how managing partners and CEOs of law firms must balance the demands of practicing law with their leadership roles. “It was just a matter of spending a lot of time at the office, frankly,” Fowler says. Most law-firm leaders split their time almost evenly between duties related to managing their firms and taking on busy caseloads, representing their own clients.

“I wouldn’t have taken the job if it had meant giving up my practice for management,” says Monica Monday, managing partner of Roanoke-based law firm Gentry Locke. “I love to practice law … That’s just an important part of who I am.”
Monday, who became managing partner in 2013, heads the firm’s appellate practice group. She estimates that she’s argued five cases in the past year and filed numerous briefs.

“It’s very difficult to tell other people to stroke if you’re not raising the paddle yourself,” says William “Bill” Van Buren III, managing partner of Norfolk-based Kaufman & Canoles. “That really puts a lot of strain on most law firm leaders because many times you feel like you have to work just as hard and bill just as promptly and market just as effectively as you ask anybody else to do in the firm all while you’re dealing with complex business and management issues that are constantly challenging you and demanding your attention.”

Former Virginia Attorney General Richard Cullen is chairman of McGuireWoods, one of the state’s largest law firms. Since being tapped as chairman in 2006, he has represented a Who’s Who list of high-profile clients, including former U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay; Tiger Woods’ ex-wife, Elin Norgren; and most recently (according to news reports) embattled FIFA President Sepp Blatter.

“It’s important at McGuireWoods for our chairman to be a practicing lawyer. That’s been our tradition,” Cullen says. “The partners expect us to continue being real lawyers so that means that managing the firm is done through specific, delegated managerial roles … A firm the size of McGuireWoods, with about 980 lawyers in 20 cities, really one person by himself can’t run it, and I don’t pretend that I do.”

Instead, Cullen works very closely with McGuireWoods’ managing partner, Thomas E. Cabaniss, a lawyer who is completely devoted to day-to-day firm management, and Executive Director Robert J. Couture, who oversees all the firm’s operational departments, including information technology, finance, marketing and human resources.

Even a smaller firm such as Gentry Locke, which has about 55 attorneys, employs an executive director to run day-to-day operations. “That leaves me free to deal with some of the broader issues and the direction of the firm’s overall management, but it doesn’t mean that I’m having to pay the light bill,” Monday says.

Oblon, McClelland, Maier & Neustadt, an intellectual property law firm of 130 attorneys based in Alexandria, hired its first chief operating officer to oversee administrative functions two years ago. “That was a big relief for me,” says Oblon’s managing partner, Bradley Lytle. “It helped get a lot of the day-to-day-type things off my plate, and we collaborate very closely.”

The irony of being a law firm’s managing partner or chairman while maintaining one’s own practice, Lytle says, is that “you end up getting to be a managing partner because you did a good job, and you earn the respect of your partners and also your clients. You build a good client following, but then, to do the managing partner job, you’ve got to spend a lot of time and energy and resources looking out for the firm’s best interests,” not your own.

Lytle says his firm has cracked that problem in a variety of ways.

For one thing, Oblon’s managing partner is elected to a three-year term and receives a bonus for management work to offset the loss of billable client hours. But perhaps more important, Oblon’s leadership decided a couple of years ago that their clients would be represented by the entire firm, not individual attorneys. Lytle might act as the firm’s point person for clients such as Sony Corp., Broadcom Corp. or the Saudi government, but potentially any attorney could be called in to work on a case. That ensures a smooth continuity for clients if an attorney retires or leaves.

And that also means that his firm is more invested in bringing up its next generation of leaders, so they strive to provide younger attorneys with a variety of internal leadership roles, he adds.

That’s not uncommon at firms — less common are firms that provide formalized training and leadership programs. Nationally there’s been a debate in legal circles over which is more important to a lawyer’s development: billable hours or actual training.

Virginia firms for the most part encourage their up-and-coming attorneys to seek leadership opportunities within their firms’ committees and subcommittees as well as through the State Bar and by volunteering on the boards of charitable organizations. But few provide regular leadership training by outside consultants, as Williams Mullen does.

As for the dilemma created when managing partners must divide their time between management duties and clients, the client comes first, but so does putting out fires, Van Buren says. And dealing with simultaneous issues means law firm leaders wind up working more than other partners, even if they’re not logging the same billable hours.

“There’s no way you can bill as much as a full-time lawyer who’s not charged with management responsibility, but I’m billing about 75 percent of what a typical partner does,” Van Buren says.

“The biggest challenge is that every now and then you run into things that only the chairman of the firm can deal with, that require some delicacy or some influence in order to resolve it … Say a lawyer in the firm’s gone off the reservation … they don’t wait for you to close a big [client] deal you’re working on in order to deal with it.”

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