Morgan Lewis chair Jami McKeon on rankings, profits and leadership

The logo of law firm Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP is seen on the exterior of its headquarters in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
The logo of law firm Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP is seen on the exterior of its headquarters in Philadelphia. September 1, 2020. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly

(Reuters) - When Morgan, Lewis & Bockius partners gather for their annual meeting in Arizona next week — their first in-person since the pandemic — one item won’t be on the agenda: Succession planning.

The firm’s 775 partners by unanimous vote last week extended chair Jami Wintz McKeon’s term to 2026. It’s two years longer than she’d originally intended to serve after taking the helm in 2014, she told me — but that was before the pandemic.

“Everything kind of stayed the status quo during COVID,” McKeon, 65, noted. With lawyers and staffers working from home, there weren’t the same opportunities to start laying the groundwork for a leadership transition, she said. By extending her term, the “feeling was that we would, in a way, get those two years back.”

McKeon is one of only a handful of women to chair a major law firm. (Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld; Hogan Lovells; Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher and Ropes & Gray are among others also currently chaired by women.)

Morgan Lewis just closed the books on its 2022 fiscal year. Economic headwinds aside, McKeon said it’s the 2,000-lawyer firm's best-ever showing for both revenue and profits, though she declined to share specific numbers, citing the firm’s policy against disclosing financial information.

The American Lawyer reported that Morgan Lewis in 2021 had gross revenue of $2.58 billion — No. 10 in the country — and profits per equity partner of $1.8 million – No. 59.

I asked McKeon about the gap in rankings, and if she feels pressure to ramp up profits. “No, not at all,” she said.

Because the firm doesn’t report its financial information, intrepid reporters are left to piece it together using any information they can find. (I’ve been in those shoes. It’s not easy.)

McKeon says the numbers “are not accurate,” and that the firm “should probably be around No. 20 in terms of where the profits are.” (The No. 20 firm, Ropes & Gray, had profits per partner in 2021 of $4.3 million.)

“We’re not chasing the rankings,” she said, adding that “if you get everything else right, the financial results will follow.”

That said, Morgan Lewis isn’t aiming to be another Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz, with PPE north of $8 million.

Jami McKeon. Photo courtesy of Morgan, Lewis and Bockius

Years ago, McKeon said her firm made a decision to stay “broad and deep,” retaining practice areas such as immigration, labor and employment, real estate and regulatory counseling.

“We don’t look at those and say ‘Oh, they charge lower rates or are more margin-constrained,’” she said. “A lot of firms have gotten rid of those practices, but for us, those practices are jewels in the crown” that make cross-selling a key aspect of the firm’s business.

Of the firm’s top 100 clients, 83 receive services from six or more practices, she said, and more than half have been with the firm for more than 20 years.

“As a result of that, when the economy turns down and a lot of firms that are over-weighted in one area or another struggle, we continue to do well,” she said. “What we’re focused on is those deep relationships.”

Indeed, relationship-building strikes me as one of her strengths. I’ve seen it first-hand when she invariably remembers the names of my children and asks about them.

That ability to forge connections helps her knit together lawyers working in 31 offices across 17 time zones.

“I have a relationship-style of leadership. I actually care about whether I know all of my partners,” she said.

Not just the partners, but their families too. “I just wrote a note yesterday to every single guest who is joining us along with a partner at the partner meeting” in Arizona, she said, as well to every rising partner and lateral who’ll be there for the first time.

On Monday, the firm announced the addition of an eight-lawyer aviation finance team from K&L Gates across its offices in London, Dubai and Singapore.

In June, Morgan Lewis opened an office in Seattle with a 34-member team, including 14 lawyers from litigation boutique Calfo Eakes.

It's familiar turf for McKeon. Six weeks into her first term as chair in 2014, she spearheaded the addition of more than 750 lawyers and staff from Bingham McCutchen.

The mother of four children, now grown, she’s long juggled a prodigious workload with family events and milestones. Without confirming a tidbit in an old profile that she billed 3,000 hours a year for five years in a row, McKeon told me, “I always wanted to do everything so I always said yes, even when people I worked with reminded me that I didn’t have to.”

It helps that she can run on four hours of sleep a night, though she added, “I try to discipline myself to shut down earlier than I used to. I’ve learned there is always more to do, so you have to be mindful of your need to rest and recharge.”

A Villanova law graduate, McKeon has spent her entire career at Morgan Lewis. “People ask me why I’ve been here for 41 years,” she said. “I feel that although it’s 10, 15 times as large, it’s still the same place.”

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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