Wilmer gears up for election a year early to find out who fits the Bills

DC powerhouse wants steady ship as first senior succession looms.

William Perlstein
William Perlstein

Last Friday (12 November) the London office of WilmerHale was a little light on lawyers as the ­bigwigs gathered in Washington DC for the firm’s annual partner retreat.

The theme of the two-day conference was improving operational efficiency, a trend Wilmer has already done much to accelerate this year by moving many of its support functions to a lower-cost back-office centre in Dayton, Ohio.

Also on the agenda was a schedule of expected further investment at home and abroad, a plan that Wilmer insiders say could see it open up to three new offices in the coming months.

But there was an additional poignancy to this year’s event, as the co-managing partners of Wilmer, Bill Perlstein and Bill Lee, plan to call it a day.

None of which will have come as a shock to any of the partners mingling at the Reagan Centre on 14th Street. For the Wilmer heads, commonly known as ’the two Bills’, the key word is ’transition’. Which is why, says Perlstein, the pair telegraphed their intentions as far in advance as possible to ensure the succession, still more than 12 months away, is smooth and successful.

“Bill and I always give a state-of-the-firm speech at the beginning of every year,” says Perlstein. “We give this address three times – to partners, then lawyers, then staff – usually between 15 January and 15 February.

“At the start of 2008 we said that the current term would be our last. We reiterated that at the start of 2010, confirming that we’d step down at the end of 2011.”

Getting the succession right is one of the trickiest issues any law firm has to deal with. Any number of hard-fought elections at other firms (think SJ Berwin for the most recent example) bear that out.

By removing any doubt about their intentions, Perlstein and Lee should have ensured that the messiness, bad feelings and ­instability that often plague top-level management changes are minimised at Wilmer when the only managing partners the firm has even known step down.

“We don’t have contested ­elections,” quips Perlstein.

While the two Bills effectively fired the starting gun on the ­transition two years ago, when they confirmed they would not be standing again, the formal process began this September.

Wilmer’s election system works like this: the partners elect a nominating committee that assembles potential candidates based on ­recommendations. That slate is then voted on by the partnership.

This year the committee started work after Labour Day (6 ­September), more than a year before Perlstein and Lee step down.

“This is the first time we’ve convened the nominating committee so early to pick a successor,” says Perlstein. “But that’s because it’s also the first time since the 2004 merger that there’ll be a ­successor. Bill and I have been the only ­managing partners this firm has ever known.”

Perlstein and Lee became co-managing partners at the time of the merger that formed WilmerHale in May 2004. Both had been heads of their former firms – ­Perlstein at Wilmer Cutler ­Pickering since 1998 and Lee at Hale and Dorr since 2000.

“I’ve only ever worked for one firm in my life,” admits Perlstein, adding: “Next year the successful candidate or candidates will work with us during a transition period, becoming managing partner or partners at the beginning of 2012.”

As is clear from Perlstein’s ­comment, the Wilmer partnership is yet to decide whether it plans to continue with the co-managing partner roles that it has operated under since the merger.

Although Perlstein’s time at the top is coming to an end, he ­confirms that neither he nor Lee have any intention of changing the ’one-firm’ approach to their careers.

“I’ll be staying at the firm, ­mainly working in New York,” says Perlstein. “I’m a bankruptcy lawyer and that’s where the bankruptcy practice and courts are. Bill’s also going to stay at the firm as our leading IP litigator.”

With technology one of Wilmer’s core competencies, the confirmation that Lee will be ­sticking around after quitting as co-­managing partner will be ­welcome.

Elsewhere, the firm’s international offering is expected to ­benefit from a bit of a boost next year, with the underweight ­London corporate team likely to get some attention. The European arbitration practice stemming out of the City is also targeted for growth.

The firm’s new offices, should they come to pass, will also require some bedding in – a task that will soon fall to the successor, or ­successors, of the two Bills.

Perlstein is at pains to stress that the amount of built-in transition time should ensure the process is as ­disruption-free as possible.

“By having announced it early and providing for a year’s ­transition, we believe it will put our ­successor or successors in the best possible position to take over,” he adds.

Separately from the managing partner elections, the nominating committee will also fill out the slate with the other Wilmer management positions that will be up for grabs next year.

These include the six other elected members of the management committee plus the five department chairs. The vote for these positions will take place in the autumn of 2011. At which point it will be all change at Wilmer.