McDermott City partners anticipate cold shoulder as trio vie for chairman post

US firm McDermott Will & Emery is gearing up for a leadership election. But the firm is not facing a revolution any time soon – all three candidates vying to replace chairman Harvey Freishtat form part of the firm’s traditional core.

US firm McDermott Will & Emery is gearing up for a leadership election. But the firm is not facing a revolution any time soon – all three candidates vying to replace chairman Harvey Freishtat form part of the firm’s traditional core.

As reported on The Lawyer.com last week (17 March), New York head and litigation partner Peter ­Sacripanti, Chicago litigation head Jeff Stone and Washington DC litigation partner Bobby Burchfield all have their eyes on becoming Freishtat’s successor.

Burchfield is a solo ­competitor, but it is thought that Stone and Sacripanti are making a joint bid for the chairman role.

Although the new term will not begin until next year, the firm’s 21-strong management committee will make its final decision on the appointment later this month and will announce the result to the wider partnership at the beginning of April.

But with the firm’s international network, and London in particular, appearing sidelined under Freishtat’s tenure, do any of the three candidates have the vision to revitalise the firm’s ­international strategy?

“I suspect all three will pay lip service to international growth,” says one former London partner. “Ultimately the firm hasn’t got the ­flexibility to create a ­credible international firm. I’m not even sure they want that.”

McDermott’s London office has suffered a string of defections in recent years. They include employment head Fraser Younson, who joined Berwin Leighton Paisner in 2006; head of corporate William Charnley, who defected to Mayer Brown in 2007; and IP head Larry Cohen, who joined Latham & Watkins in 2007.

Freishtat and the firm’s management committee have been criticised for their handling of McDermott’s international practice after previous chairman Larry Gerber kick-started the firm’s overseas efforts during his 13-year tenure.

“The firm has attempted to expand, but London’s been run into the ground,” says a source close to the firm. “Freishtat hasn’t been a dynamic leader. That’s what the firm needs next.”

After five years under Freishtat, McDermott ­certainly needs some new life injected into its global ­capabilities. But with only one London partner, Peter Nias, on the management committee, the UK ­partnership has limited influence on decisions that are made largely in the US.

“London’s voice isn’t heard,” insists a former lawyer. “The old-guard Chicago partners are the most influential. None of these ­candidates has a particular international focus as it is, so who they select is irrelevant to London.”

All three litigators standing for election are prominent figures on the US side of McDermott’s practice.

As New York head, Sacripanti was responsible for building up the firm’s Manhattan office, hiring a number of former colleagues from his previous firm Dewey ­Ballantine (now Dewey & LeBoeuf), including corporate partner ­Timothy Alvino.

Stone, meanwhile, represents the firm’s traditional Chicago-centric faction.

“If you’d asked me five years ago who’d be likely to stand for election in 2009, I would have said these two,” says a former partner. “Both have a traditional McDermott perspective and are likely to focus on the domestic market during the downturn.”

In contrast, Burchfield is a reasonably new recruit to the firm, having moved from Covington & Burling in 2004 to co-head the firm’s DC office. A well-known Republican adviser, Burchfield has a strong relationship with both George Bush senior and ­junior.

Although all the candidates are formidable figures, none have inspired much confidence about the fate of the London office.

“I don’t know [Burchfield] well, but Stone and Sacripanti have barely ­visited London at all,” says a London partner. “Considering they’re important ­management figures ­gunning for the chairman role, this isn’t a good sign.”

Each candidate is thought to have visited McDermott’s network of offices to canvass support in recent months. Taking the role in 2010 will be a challenge for any of the three, with the global ­economy showing no signs of immediate recovery.

“Changing leadership is disruptive for any firm,” explains a former partner. “McDermott needs a ­dynamic leader to bring it back to life in the US and internationally.”

McDermott declined to comment on the election, with a spokesperson saying: “The firm’s election process is a private partnership ­matter on which we’re not able to comment.”