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Butler Snow goes big for new chief operating officer

HOWARD BELKNAP

HOWARD BELKNAP

DON CLARK

DON CLARK

By JACK WEATHERLY 

L. Howard Belknap comes to Butler Snow, Mississippi’s largest law firm, from Baker & McKenzie – year in and out at the top of the list of the world’s biggest.

Belknap (the k is silent) last week was named chief operating officer of the Ridgeland-based firm.

It may come as a surprise, but he is not a lawyer.

“Most chief operating officers of large law firms are not lawyers,” Belknap said in an interview.

A graduate of the U.S. Military Academy, he majored in engineering and became a speech writer for Army leaders, including former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Colin Powell. He succeeded Lance Bonner, who held the post for 15 years before leaving in January for a position as vice president of strategic development at Delta Industries Inc.

With assistance from Altman Weil, a legal consulting firm, Butler Snow conducted a nationwide search , according to Butler Snow Chairman Don Clark. From a field of roughly 60 applicants, Clark said Belknap stood out because of his leadership positions in the military and at a number of highly regarded law firms.

Before joining Baker & McKenzie in 2008, where he was chief operating officer and director of its New York City office, Belknap was director of business development at Morgan, Lewis & Bockius and director of administration at the New York office of Shaw Pittman.

As chief operating officer, the idea is make sure the firm operates smoothly, leaving the lawyering to lawyers, Belknap said.

Belknap, 58, who retired as a lieutenant colonel, was in charge of Baker & McKenzie’s New York City office, which he said is slightly smaller than Butler Snow.

He acknowledged the “tremendous pressure” on lawyers and partners in firms in a place such as New York to generate revenue. “Lawyers tend to be very competitive in major cities. And in some cases they maybe put an undue amount of attention on the profitability.”

Baker and McKenzie reported on its website revenues of $2.43 billion in fiscal 2015. It counts 12,000 lawyers in under its international roof.

But, coming from a giant law firm, is Belknap’s goal to grow Butler Snow exponentially?

Growth, yes – Butler Snow, with more than 300 lawyers, has doubled its size in the past five years – but “what attracted me to Butler Snow is its laser-like focus on clients and not making the last dollar,” he said in a conference call.

Since the recession of 2008 and 2009, clients have focused more on controlling costs, Belknap said. “The real challenge for law firms is to be as efficient and effective in delivering topnotch legal services.”

As a result of the recession, and in some cases mismanagement, “a lot of fine firms had to go out of business, to declare bankruptcy.”

The firm has offices in 20 U.S. cities, plus London, Singapore and Hong Kong, Clark said.

So it is obviously not against growth, but size is not the ultimate goal, Clark added.

Butler Snow hired two lawyers for its New York office who have expertise in areas that will enhance the relationship with an existing client, Clark said.

Diversification is the key, said Clark, who was elected chairman in 2006.

Among Mississippi firms, it is the most diversified, with 56 areas of practice, according to U.S. News and World Report.

Additionally, the firm has several subsidiaries:

VisionFirst Advisors is an economic development firm whose primary location is in Tallahassee, Fla. It’s headed by Gray Swoope, who is the former head of the Mississippi Development Authority and Enterprise Florida, and former Gov. Haley Barbour.

Butler Snow Advisory provides advisory services to closely-held and multi-generational, family-owned businesses across Mississippi and the Mid-South.  It has presence in Nashville, Memphis, Birmingham and Ridgeland.

MRC-X, the firm’s newest subsidiary, helps clients in the pharmaceutical and medical device industry with non-legal regulatory, quality and clinical consulting services.  It is based in Memphis.

Yet the firm is not through inventing itself. “We’re looking for new ideas and new concepts from him as we continue to grow,” Clark said.

So for the ever-diversifying Butler Snow, he added, “our challenge is . . . to be able to deliver services in a very coherent and efficient way.”

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