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After Bribery Bust, Willkie Is Latest Firm to Face Vacuum in Leadership

Willkie Farr & Gallagher offices in Washington, D.C.

Photo: Diego M. Radzinschi/ALM

No law firm wants to find itself with a sudden gap in its leadership, as Willkie Farr & Gallagher did last week.

But the news that Gordon Caplan was placed on leave from the firm – following a federal indictment alleging that he paid $75,000 to have his daughter’s college test score fixed – is one more reminder of the singular nature of firms, where lofty titles carry different weight at different shops. In the end, the long-term effect of any disruption on the Wall Street firm could be muted.

Caplan, a top dealmaker at Willkie, joined the firm's executive committee and became co-chairman in February 2016. But his position was secondary to the firm's two chairmen, Thomas Cerabino and Steven Gartner, who have been leading the firm since the start of 2010, following 21 months as vice co-chairmen.

Gordon Caplan. (Photo: Carmen Natale/ALM)

In a November 2016 interview with Forbes, after Caplan took on the co-chair title, Cerabino explained that he and Gartner lead the firm's 10-member executive committee and that "ultimately" the two are "responsible for directing the firm". In recent years, it's Gartner who has served as the public voice of the firm.

"The role and responsibility of different types of leader varies very much between different firms," said Zeughauser Group consultant Kent Zimmermann.

The firm declined to comment about the nature of Caplan's leadership role. But at most firms with co-leaders, there's a formal division of responsibilities, at least internally, noted Altman Weil's Eric Seeger.

"People need to know who to go to for what," he said.

The immediate move for the firm is likely to apportion out Caplan's management responsibilities to another leader, while it grapples with the current and potential headaches of having a prominent partner publicly disgraced and facing severe legal jeopardy.

But the very fact that Caplan was one of several names attached to the management of the firm suggests that his exit will not be as significant as 2018's most stunning law firm leadership change: the abrupt resignation of Latham & Watkins' sole chairman, Bill Voge, after his "communications of a sexual nature" with a woman who had no connection to the firm were revealed.

There, vice-chairs Ora Fisher and Richard Trobman immediately stepped in as interim co-chairs, and Trobman was selected as the new chair and managing partner three months later. The disruption has had no apparent drag on Latham's performance. In 2018, the firm had its strongest financial performance in nearly half a decade.

"It would be infrequent that the absence of one person for a period of time would be a game changer," Zimmermann contended.

Of course, it doesn't require a scandal to unseat a leader without warning. Consider recent cases such as Dane Butswinkas' short-lived move to Tesla from Williams & Connolly, or the leave that Baker McKenzie global chairman Paul Rawlinson is currently taking due to exhaustion. Whatever the nature of Caplan's alleged crime or his management role, his unexpected exit serves as another example of the need for robust succession planning.

"It’s always wise to create a leadership pipeline by putting your likely future leaders in practice leadership seats and committee chairs, and as project leaders," Seeger said. "That’s a good way to assess leadership capacity and groom people for potential management committee and potential managing partner positions."

And beyond simply identifying future leaders, it's good to know who will step in in the event of any sort of rupture. Ironically, Willkie might have a leg up on this sort of contingency planning, thanks to a recent management decision.

In January, the firm hired Michael Gottlieb, a former associate White House counsel under President Barack Obama, from Boies Schiller Flexner. His brief? To lead a new crisis management practice at the firm.

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