When the partners at Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy gather with their spouses and significant others next week for their scheduled resort retreat, they will hear the annual state of the firm speech delivered by a new firm chair for the first time since 1996.
Scott Edelman, 49, a litigator and the newly elected chair, will address his partners, replacing Mel Immergut, 66, the longest serving head of any Am Law 100 firm in New York.
The transition, carefully planned and set in motion four years ago when Edelman was installed as vice chairman and Immergut declared him his designated successor, is meant to be seamless.
"My hope is that I will walk out of the building and no one will notice that anything has changed," said Immergut.
But the hand over marks the end of a remarkable run for one of the oldest firms in the city, one whose future was not guaranteed when Immergut, then a mid-career corporate lawyer with a gift for client development and a business school education, took the reins.
In 1996, Milbank was in the throes of a thorny and public transition that had dragged on for a decade. It was suffering from retirements, lateral departures and, most serious of all, a troubling dependence on what was then the Chase Manhattan Bank. Chase and other Rockefeller family interests accounted for 10 percent of its billings, down from a high of 40 percent a decade earlier. Shortly after Immergut took over, The American Lawyer, a Law Journal affiliate, quoted an anonymous rival on its cover who sniffed that Milbank was "the firm that time forgot."
Sniff no more. During Immergut's tenure, the firm reestablished itself as an elite player in the high-end legal market by attracting business-bearing laterals, developing new practices, and opening focused outposts in Europe, Asia and Latin America.
The numbers tell the story. ALM's research arm, ALM Legal Intelligence, ran a comparison of Milbank's record between 1996 and 2011 and those of seven peer firms in New York (Cravath, Swaine & Moore; Davis Polk & Wardwell; Debevoise & Plimpton; Paul Weiss Rifkind Wharton & Garrison; Simpson Thacher & Bartlett; Sullivan & Cromwell; and Willkie Farr & Gallagher.) By each of ALI's measures, Milbank beat the averages of the others. Gross revenue increased 243 percent (average: 202 percent); profits were up 250 percent (average 138 percent) and revenue per lawyer up 84 percent (average 64 percent).
"Part of the fun for me has been making the firm more profitable," said Immergut.
In 2011, the last year for which there is full data available, Milbank's profits per partner were $2.57 million.