There were a pair of stories about Boies Schiller Flexner yesterday and one of them received considerably more media attention than the other. The Wall Street Journal reported that Nick Gravante Jr., one of BSF’s two co-managing partners through the firm’s recent restructuring, would join Cadwalader, adding his name to the ranks of BSF’s mounting partner departures. And while that’s understandably newsworthy, it sort of crowded out BSF’s announcement that Natasha Harrison, Gravante’s co-managing partner, would step up to become the firm’s deputy chair and heir apparent to David Boies as chair.
Unfortunately, Gravante’s departure was bound to get more attention when a partner who has publicly voiced a Keep Calm and Carry On message as media outlets fretted that BSF’s partner defections were a sign of impending doom. When one of the people behind the firm’s restructuring strategy opts out, isn’t that further proof that the strategy is in trouble?
A convenient narrative and certainly an easy one to tell, but maybe not the accurate one.
When I got a chance to ask Gravante about the move directly, he was quick to point out that his decision to move had nothing to do with a lack of faith in BSF or its future as much as a recognition that his book of business was better served with a full-service firm as opposed to a litigation-centric outfit. “David [Boies] and I have had discussions about the best platform for my business for quite a while…. in fact, David was the one who suggested Cadwalader to me.”
That answer actually tracks my general sense of the BSF changes. While a lot of people see trouble in the exits — and losing significant books of business is never great — I wrote back in April that my sense of the massive movement was that the firm had signaled internally that it would chart a path where attorneys with business litigation portfolios that fit within the confines of traditional Biglaw firms would seize the opportunity to decamp for those platforms, while those with business that benefits from a laser-focused litigation shop are staying.
Would BSF be better off if it had decided to embrace a full-service model? Maybe? Maybe not. These are questions above my pay grade. Boies acknowledges that there are arguments to be made either way. “There’s no doubt that there are advantages of that model. We think there are advantages to our litigation model too. There are advantages to having a broad set of practices that can hopefully be synergistic. There are advantages in a litigation-only model in not having conflicts and perhaps having more collegiality. It’s a choice. They’re different kinds of firms.”
Natasha Harrison, who has spent her 2020 pandemic pulling up stakes and moving from London to the United States to manage the BSF retooling, embodies the philosophy the firm is adopting. “What attracted me was not being an accessory to a transactional department. That was incredibly attractive to me and other lateral hires as well.” She also noted that, with clients increasingly unpacking their legal spend and choosing different firms for different matters, the firm sees a strategic advantage to its litigation-centric approach.
That a woman’s elevation to what is, functionally, the top perch of a major law firm got overshadowed in the day’s news is unfortunate. Over at our columnist David Lat’s new Substack, Original Jurisdiction, he talks to Boies about the “admittedly messy and drawn-out leadership transition” and the firm’s ultimate realization that it would coalesce around Harrison’s leadership:
Over the course of the last year, Natasha has really distinguished herself as a leader. We have had a number of very talented people in leadership roles in recent years. But you have to pick the best, and there was a real consensus in the Executive Committee that we should elevate Natasha to deputy chair, with the expectation that she would succeed me at some point.
With Harrison moving to deputy chair and Gravante moving to Cadwalader, the firm will now look to elevate three partners to the co-managing partner role recognizing that everyone is maintaining busy practices and that there’s more than enough management work to go around.
There are going to be voices who think the firm should have remained the big tent of talent it became over the course of its rapid growth. Others who will think it needed to excise some of its practices to become a corporate trial work firm. Others who wish it would build itself out to a full-service firm. And still others who embrace the current sorting that doubles down on fewer offices and an opportunistic litigation practice that’s equally at home defending a big corporation as it is pursuing a class action against major insurers. It’s a testament to the firm that it might well have thrived going down any of those paths. But choices had to be made eventually, and this is the path the firm’s chosen and that’s going to mean a lot of people leave.
After a number of detours on the road to this point, the firm has settled on the leader it expects to move it into its future.
Boies Schiller Leader To Leave Firm [WSJ]
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Joe Patrice is a senior editor at Above the Law and co-host of Thinking Like A Lawyer. Feel free to email any tips, questions, or comments. Follow him on Twitter if you’re interested in law, politics, and a healthy dose of college sports news. Joe also serves as a Managing Director at RPN Executive Search.