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Midlife Career Transitions

Advice for the restless from lawyers who have reimagined and retooled their careers.

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October/November 2007 Issue | Volume 33 Number 7 | Page 39

Midlife Career Transistions

Right Time, Right Place: A New Mission as Law Firm COO

Making the journey from Portland, Maine, to Portland, Oregon, to become COO of Stoel Rives, former ABA President Robert Hirshon finds a second calling in law practice management.

Imagine that you’re Robert Hirshon and it is fall 2002. You’ve just completed a year serving as president of the American Bar Association, a position many would deem the pinnacle of the profession. After achieving such a height, you’re contemplating what you can possibly do next. Do you revamp your practice at your longtime firm? Rest on your laurels after decades of hard work? Go forth and pursue new challenges in an alternate area of the law? Hirshon chose door number three.

When a young Bob Hirshon graduated from the University of Michigan Law School in 1973, he started work at Drummond, Woodsum and MacMahon in Portland, Maine. Like most lawyers in those days, in signing on with his first firm, he thought that he would probably spend his entire career there. He did, in fact, enjoy a remarkable three decades with the firm, developing a solid reputation as a litigator and lobbyist. And even after his year as ABA president ended, Hirshon was planning to return to active practice at Drummond. (Not that he had ever “really” left, but ABA presidents don’t have a lot of time for depositions and court appearances.) In the end, however, it seems that it just wasn’t meant for him to go back to his firm for a few more years, pick up his gold watch and head for the golf course. New adventures in the profession were in store for him elsewhere.

A Sweeping Panorama Takes Shape

It wasn’t as though Hirshon had lived a sheltered life in Maine for 30 years, of course. He had served as president of both the Maine Bar Association and the Maine Bar Foundation. He had held several other leadership positions within the ABA, and in the years leading up to his tenure as its president, he traveled extensively and became more involved in issues of national and international importance. In fact, during his three years as an ABA officer, Hirshon traveled to 17 different countries to meet with assorted legal and political leaders. By the time he took his turn as the association’s president in fall 2001, he had a far-seeing worldview that was shaped by his involvement in a range of bar activities and travels. But after he was selected to head the ABA, things began to really change in his life.

Hirshon’s to-do list for his year as president contained a wide variety of ambitious projects to address a number of his concerns about the legal profession, the business community and society in general. What wasn’t on that list, though, was September 11, 2001. The events of that day changed everything, and Hirshon’s list of projects, at least temporarily, was shortened to one thing—leading the legal profession in responding following the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.

The U.S. President and Congress immediately began drafting legislation to address national security issues, and Hirshon decided that the ABA needed to make certain there was a balance between the necessities of aggressively fighting terrorism and protecting the civil liberties of Americans. His first act was to appoint a task force to focus on maintaining that balance. Shortly after 9/11, he spoke to the National League of Cities and was the first public spokesperson to argue that, as he puts it, “the hastily drafted Military Order creating the Guantanamo prison system could lead to international problems for the United States.”

Despite the justifiable preoccupation with terrorism, though, the world didn’t come to a complete halt during his year as ABA president and other challenges had to be tackled as well. Prominent among them, concerns about corporate governance in the wake of the scandals involving some of America’s largest and most powerful corporations led to congressional action—and Hirshon took on the role of spokesperson for the ABA and the American legal community. He was involved in negotiations with the Securities and Exchange Commission and with Congress to draft what eventually became Sarbanes-Oxley, the monumental piece of legislation on corporate governance and accounting standards. Hirshon also developed twin presidential initiatives involving what he described as the “tyranny of the billable hour” and loan repayment programs for public defenders and legal aid personnel.

It was a time full of breathtaking challenges. But after 12 months, the ABA got a new president and Hirshon had to decide what to do with the rest of his career, if not the rest of his life.

Hirshon admits that the old cliché about “not being able to keep them down on the farm” may have been part of the reason he reluctantly decided to leave Maine and his longtime firm. While leading the ABA he had not only dealt with policy issues at the highest levels, but had seen the legal profession interact with the legislative and political process. As a result of it all, he had also seen how the country’s institutions were changing—and changing rapidly. He realized he wanted to stay involved at that level.

Hirshon tells the story this way: “After I went back to the law firm and tried to pick up the pieces, I found that it wasn’t as fulfilling as I had hoped. I thought about what I’d like to do and decided that I wanted to continue doing something law-related. My first thought was to become dean of a law school to put my imprimatur on the legal profession.” Becoming an academic wasn’t in the cards, though.

A Zeal Finds Its Form

Instead, while visiting Oregon in winter 2002, Hirshon discussed his situation with a longtime friend from the ABA who was managing partner of a law firm there, and she suggested he might enjoy working in law firm management. This possibility had appeal. It was no coincidence that law practice management had always been one of Hirshon’s passions, something that his wise friend must have known. He began to seriously consider her suggestion and decided it would be a way for him to “have an impact on the profession by creating a model of how we can create a balance between our profession and the business-centric world in which law firms operate.”

Shortly after that visit, he was approached to take a job managing the day-to-day operations of a well-respected midsize firm—Tonkon Torp—in Portland, Oregon, and he ultimately accepted. “I was able to come into Tonkon Torp and be an in-house consultant,” Hirshon says enthusiastically. “And Tonkon was a great place to work. I really enjoyed the people.” Moreover, he enjoyed his ability in the new position to recommend changes and improvements in firm management, as well as work on the firm’s long-range planning efforts.

Hirshon found this job both challenging and satisfying and he kept at it for four years—then yet another opportunity came knocking at his door. Earlier this year, he left Tonkon Torp to accept a new challenge as chief operating officer at 350-lawyer Stoel Rives, LLP, which is also located in Portland, Oregon, but with a strong regional presence throughout the West and Midwest as well.

In his new position, Hirshon is tasked not only with managing the firm’s operations, but also with being involved in developing long-range plans and objectives—perfect work for someone with a passion for investigating new models of law firm operations. “I am incredibly fortunate,” Hirshon says, “to be working with such a talented group of lawyers and staff.” As a bonus, one of the things that helped lure Hirshon to his new position was Stoel Rives’s practice in environmental and natural resources. The firm just opened a branch in Minneapolis to help expand its reach in those areas with emphasis on sustainability and renewable energy resources.

“What a wonderful time to be a law practice manager,” he observes. “Over the next 10 to 15 years we are going to create the model that will allow law firms to respond to the changing business environment, but still maintain and improve our professionalism. The lawyers who run the law firms of America will wrestle with some big issues.” Hirshon points to recent changes in the legal profession in Europe and Australia, where accounting firms and others are investing in some of the largest law firms and precipitating a tidal wave of multidisciplinary practice. He reflects proudly on the ABA having taken a stand that essentially said, “We don’t want to look like Europe.”

Bob Hirshon now believes that he is in exactly the right place at the right time and has found the challenge he was looking for.

About the Author

K. William Gibson is an attorney, arbitrator and mediator in Clackamas, OR.  A member of Law Practice’s Editorial Board, he also authors the magazine’s award-winning “Ask Bill” column.