Why Reed Smith’s leader quit big law for a nonprofit

Signage is seen in the lobby of the law firm Reed Smith LLP in Manhattan, New York City
Signage is seen in the lobby of the law firm Reed Smith LLP in Manhattan. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly

(Reuters) - When big firm leaders step down, it’s usually a carefully choreographed process that includes a prolonged transition.

In part, that’s why I found it so startling to learn this week that Reed Smith’s global managing partner and executive committee chair Alexander “Sandy” Thomas was quitting in the midst of his third four-year term, with barely a month’s notice to the partnership.

Casey Ryan, currently the firm’s global head of legal personnel, will serve the rest of Thomas’ term until the next scheduled election in 2025.

Moreover, Thomas, 56, is not rejoining the ranks to pick up his practice as a litigator – a common move when lawyers who are not of retirement age exit firm leadership.

Instead, he’s leaving 1,700-lawyer Reed Smith effective March 1 to serve as the first chief legal officer of nongovernmental organization Kids in Need of Defense (KIND), an organization founded by Microsoft Corp and Angelina Jolie, which provides legal assistance and social services for unaccompanied refugee and migrant children.

My fundamental question: What prompted such a dramatic career change by the head of one of the top firms in the country, with $1.4 billion in revenue in 2021 and profits per equity partner of $1.7 million?

Thomas wasn’t giving interviews -- too busy working on the annual task of determining compensation for the firm’s 665 partners, a PR rep said -- but he did agree to answer a series of questions via email.

My biggest one, because journalists are naturally suspicious: Did the firm ask him to leave?

“It was my decision alone to leave,” he said.

I asked some of the firm's senior leaders the same question.

“To be clear, the partnership did not ask Sandy to leave the firm. This was solely his decision, and we support him 100%,” Carol Loepere, who chairs the firm’s business and finance department, told me.

“An emphatic absolutely not!” added Tamara Box, managing partner for Europe and the Middle East.

“Sandy’s decision was completely his own,” agreed Douglas Cameron, managing partner for the Americas.

Still, why leave now? Why not wait until his term as chair ended?

Thomas responded, “When I began my new term in June 2021, I fully intended to serve out the full four years. I now have a personal and professional opportunity that I cannot pass up.”

In some ways, that reminds me of his predecessor as Reed Smith chair, Gregory Jordan, who also left mid-term, quitting in 2013 to become general counsel of PNC Financial Services Group.

Jordan told the Pittsburgh Business Times at the time that “the opportunity took me by surprise.”

That’s not quite the case here. Thomas said he became aware of the opportunity at KIND “through a mutual friend of a member of KIND’s leadership,” and that because Reed Smith for years had done pro bono work for the organization, he said, “I was quite familiar with and had admiration for KIND’s mission.”

Reached by email, Jordan said Thomas "did a great job over the past 10 years leading Reed Smith.”

Thomas called joining KIND “a purpose-led decision.”

“I have enjoyed leading Reed Smith,” he said. “But given where I am in my life and career, I was seeking a change. This opportunity to work at KIND will allow me to do something that is really rewarding and different.”

KIND president Wendy Young said that adding Thomas as the organization's first chief legal officer fills "a critical role" for the 15-year-old non-profit. KIND works with more than 755 law firms, corporate, law school and bar associations to provide pro bono representation and other services, according to its website.

Thomas also stressed – and senior firm leaders agreed – that Reed Smith is not being left in the lurch by his departure.

Succession planning began the day he took over as chair 10 years ago, Thomas said, and “that plan is simply executed as soon as a situation like this occurs.”

He added that Ryan, who did not respond to a request for comment, has for years “been playing a lead role in some of the firm’s most consequential business decisions” and is “more than ready” to step in.

Thomas declined to share whether something personal in his life prompted the move – and perhaps that’s none of our business anyway. But he did say he has “always had a desire to be in public service, to give back,” and that after 10 years at the helm of Reed Smith, the timing felt right “to pivot to something that I have long considered and wanted to do.”

He’s not the first big law leader to follow a more altruistic calling. James Sandman spent the first 30 years of his career at Arnold & Porter, where he was managing partner for a decade. He quit in 2007 to become general counsel of the District of Columbia Public Schools, then president of the Legal Services Corp from 2011 to 2020.

Did he ever regret leaving big law?

“Not for a second,” Sandman, now a faculty member at the University of Pennsylvania's Carey Law School, told me. “I feel as if I found my calling later in my career, and I’m glad I did.”

As for the salary cut, Sandman said, “You can be very happy not making millions of dollars a year,” though he conceded that “Some people did think I was crazy.”

“If more people made moves like the one [Thomas] is making,” he added, “I think law would be a happier profession.”

Read More:

‘This is a contact sport’: Reed Smith’s Sandy Thomas on effective Big Law leadership

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Jenna Greene writes about legal business and culture, taking a broad look at trends in the profession, faces behind the cases, and quirky courtroom dramas. A longtime chronicler of the legal industry and high-profile litigation, she lives in Northern California. Reach Greene at jenna.greene@thomsonreuters.com