Come Jan. 1, Holland & Hart will have a new partner at the helm.
Chris Balch, a Denver-based M&A attorney who has spent almost his entire 20-year legal career at Holland & Hart, was elected its new firm chair. He’s set to take over for Liz Sharrer, who chaired the 450-plus-attorney firm for the past six years.
The leadership switch comes as the 72-year-old firm, which has offices in eight Western states and in Washington, D.C., carries out a new strategic plan. Balch and Sharrer talked with Law Week about the leadership transition and how Holland & Hart is looking to adjust to the changing legal market.
LAW WEEK (to Balch): In what ways do you think your M&A practice experience informs your management and decision-making style?
BALCH: I’ll tell you that M&A practitioners, we often have to quarterback large teams — large teams of subject matter experts, for example — on any given transaction. So you’ve got to seek advice from those subject matter experts, then you’ve got to try and distill complex information down into basic parts and then help your client navigate the broader deal context and then make informed business decisions. So, you know, I feel that my practice as an M&A lawyer has sharpened those skills, and they translate in my view pretty well into the managerial context and dealing with organizational behavior and decision making.
I also think M&A practitioners have to have a certain level of EQ, or emotional intelligence, coupled with empathy to excel in what they do, whether that’s managing your client, people on your client’s team, managing the counterparty or the counterparty’s team. I think strong M&A practitioners tend to read the room well, they’re empathetic to others’ circumstances and needs and at times act almost as a psychologist. Most importantly, I think as an M&A lawyer leading transactions, you have to remain calm, measured and balanced during the most stressful of times, often, for your client. And I think again, it’s those characteristics, skills and attributes that I think lend themselves well to managerial or executive roles.
When you’re working with 200-plus partners, and also have 900-plus employees’ lives in your hands, I think it’s important to be measured and balanced in your approach. I think it’s also very important to listen to all the voices in the hallways in order to make informed decisions and to inform yourself before making those decisions. I think, like in M&A, [the new role] is a very bottom-up, team-based approach, and there are some nice parallels there with what I do on a daily basis.
LAW WEEK (to Balch): What’s on your to-do list for the transition?
BALCH: Well, before and after the election, I’ve been on a roadshow of sorts, given our geographic reach. I’ve been out visiting our attorneys and staff in order to get to know them better and obtain better visibility into their practices, challenges and opportunities that exist in their market, and I will continue to do that over the next couple of months. That’s been a great and valuable tool, it just gives me great visibility.
In addition, while I spend a lot of time with Liz, I will continue to shadow her on a daily basis, just better understanding the role and the day-to-day and the challenges and the opportunities that she can help me with.
My plan also is to continue my practice. I’ve built a strong team of lawyers who support that practice and our clients. And taking on this significant leadership role, I’m obviously going to be working with my team to identify ways to provide the same or better level of service, during my tenure as chair, to my clients. So that’s the short term.
LAW WEEK (to Sharrer): What accomplishments in your tenure as chair are you most satisfied with?
SHARRER: It won’t surprise you to hear that the last five or six years have been a time of such rapid, really just astonishing, levels of change in the industry. And I think one of the things that has been a constant through that whole six years is something Chris referred to, which is the process of managing change. We have, as a leadership team, led on changes that are going to form the foundation and the groundwork going forward for a number of the adaptations we’ve made that are necessary — both internal and external — to both result in changing our business model and how we deliver services to clients in a way that’s responsive to what clients are asking for these days.
I would also say that part of what that change management process involved always is a real balancing act, and you’re balancing pushing necessary change with trying to remain true to who you are as a firm, the core values of the firm, to the culture of the firm. And it involves just trying to bring all your stakeholders along in understanding both why change is necessary, as well as what the change is going to consist of and how you’re going to make it work. And that’s a process that I think every firm is going through in one way or another. But it has really been a dominant theme, I think, of my time in this job. And I’m proud of where we’ve ended up with it. I’m proud of where we are positioned right now and what we’re going to be doing going forward.
LAW WEEK (to Sharrer): What’s next for you in terms of your role at the firm and your practice? What do you get to do now that you perhaps lacked the bandwidth for while you’ve been chair?
SHARRER: I will continue to be involved here, but I am going to be focused more on several longtime clients and working with them, although I have transitioned a lot of that practice to younger people here while I’ve been in this job. My role is more of a high-level strategic role with those clients. There’s more pro bono work that I want to be doing. And I intend to have a lot more time to travel and to garden and to do some of the hobbies that I haven’t had time to do, honestly, for like 30 years it feels like sometimes. But I’m at an age where I will be moving towards transitioning out of some of the roles I have at the firm. But there are things like mentoring and diversity and inclusiveness initiatives that I care deeply about, that I will stay involved in at some level. And I’ll be bugging Chris on a daily basis, I’m sure — not really!
BALCH: And it will be welcome.
LAW WEEK (to Sharrer): What’s some advice you’ve been giving Chris about what it takes to be firm chair?
SHARRER: Chris is going to be great in this job, for a number of the reasons that he described to you when he was talking about what it takes to be a good M&A lawyer. He does bring those attributes to this job. But I think that the advice I would give Chris, or anybody who was taking on a role like this, is to listen — listen a lot, listen to everybody. Stay flexible. And don’t prejudge what you are going to be deciding. You need to get that input and you need to talk to a lot of people. And you’re the chair of the entire firm. That’s one thing I can’t stress enough. You’re not just the chair of the partners. You are the chair of a firm that involves almost 1,000 people, and it really matters to all of those people, as well as your clients and to the external world, that you bring their voices in as well. But he’s going to be good, I have no doubt.
LAW WEEK: You’ve each spent all or nearly all of your legal careers at Holland & Hart. What advantages do you think that gives someone in leading the firm?
SHARRER: I think that the obvious advantage is you have a very deep understanding of the history and the culture of the firm. You know where the pain points are going to occur on any decision. And you have a pretty good understanding of what you’re going to have to do to build consensus within the firm. And you also have an understanding of what our various offices and practices contribute and where we need to kind of strengthen and shore things up and where we need to support. All of those things are probably more easily understood when you have the length of history that both Chris and I have here.
BALCH: I would just re-emphasize that having the history, and at least one term being on the management committee myself, just knowing your people. And as Liz stated, knowing your markets with a fairly broad geographic reach that we have, it’s obviously an advantage to understand your markets and the folks that are executing on those markets. It obviously expedites a lot of thinking, and you always want to check in with your people to see how things are changing and evolving in their marketplaces. But having a core understanding of the personalities in your firm just takes a lot of time and creates efficiencies.
LAW WEEK: And would you say that, on the other side of that coin, there’s a disadvantage in not having seen on the inside how other firms have done things? Is that something you have to make up for as a firm chair?
BALCH: I think it’s absolutely something that you have to keep top of mind. The obvious disadvantage with having not worked at another firm is that if you don’t stay vigilant and intentionally informed, you could be blind or completely unaware of other best practices. Thankfully, we continue to have great success in recruiting and retaining practitioners from other top-tier firms all over the country. And we are very thoughtful, and we do our best to involve those partners and attorneys in leadership training and management and leadership roles. We continue to pressure-test our own practices and policies and continue to question the overall business model.
SHARRER: I agree with that. I think we have done a good job of moving laterals into leadership roles here, and their perspective is always instructive and helpful. The other thing that I think is very helpful — and I know Chris will start doing this as well — there are so many good forums and places that chairs and managing partners of firms from all over the country come together. And you need to participate in those because you always learn things. And it’s interesting how the same issues are top of mind, usually, for everybody. But that’s another very good place to essentially just get a window into what others are doing. And it’s always interesting to me how absolutely forthcoming people are in those forums. You’d think maybe because people are viewing a competitive landscape, they wouldn’t be. But the reality is that it is a wonderfully supportive and honest group in discussing what their issues are and how they’re approaching them, and trying to get information from others. So I think that can help overcome the fact that both of us have practiced mostly here for our whole careers.
LAW WEEK: What’s the firm’s strategy for maintaining or growing the bottom line and head count in the increasingly competitive Western region?
BALCH: So as a starting place for 2019, we are projecting a positive year in terms of our financial performance. In terms of growth, increased headcount will not always translate into financial success. While some firms are pursuing a strategy of growth for growth’s sake, that is not our approach. We’re being very intentional and strategic in our growth initiatives. We’re obviously remaining vigilant in our recruiting efforts and very open to pursuing both on acquisitions of smaller firms or hiring practice groups that align with our strategic goals that could supplement our high-performing practices, or our focuses on energy and resources, technology and intellectual property.
Also, given the reality of more lateral movement in the legal marketplace today, we have to continue to instill a culture of growth and a growth mindset in all of our practitioners, so that we all keep recruiting, retention and growth top of mind. •
— Doug Chartier