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Sheldon Bonovitz Steps Down as Duane Morris Chairman, John Soroko Takes Over Law Firm Leadership

By Gina Passarella
January 4, 2008
The Legal Intelligencer

Sheldon Bonovitz Steps Down as Duane Morris Chairman, John Soroko Takes Over Law Firm Leadership

By Gina Passarella
January 4, 2008
The Legal Intelligencer

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After 10 years at the helm of Duane Morris, Sheldon Bonovitz has stepped down as chairman and handed over the reins to vice chairman and litigation department head John J. Soroko.

The switch was effective Thursday and will start a new chapter in a firm that has tripled in size since Bonovitz, 70, took over as chairman in the beginning of 1998.

Duane Morris went from a little more than 200 lawyers then to more than 650 now. Soroko, 56, said the firm was well-known in the mid-Atlantic area in 1998, but now has offices across the country and in London, Singapore and Vietnam. Revenues have increased in the last 10 years from $70 million to $375 million for 2007.

"In the course of all this, Duane Morris has earned a wide reputation for innovation, creativity, entrepreneurship and forward thinking, in everything from our efficient firm administration and our ancillary businesses, to the design of our offices and, yes, our artwork," Soroko said Thursday in a response to Bonovitz's e-mail announcement to the firm that he was stepping down.

The 10-year mark, Soroko said in an interview, was a good breaking point for Bonovitz, who plans to stay active in the firm as chairman emeritus.

"My goal is to be helpful to John as he assumes the chairmanship, but certainly not be intrusive," Bonovitz said in the e-mail to the firm Thursday. "My status will be that of chairman emeritus and, as such, I will serve on various committees and boards of the firm as well as focus on client development and practice."

Soroko said he has had great training over the past few years at Bonovitz's side and doesn't anticipate any major changes in the way the firm will be run.

He said there are no immediate plans to name a new vice chairman -- a position that has only sometimes been filled within the firm.

While he will continue to advise clients and argue cases on appeal, Soroko said he doesn't plan on practicing full time. He has served as the head of the litigation department -- the firm's largest practice -- since 2002 and has passed that title on to Philadelphia-based partner Matthew A. Taylor.

Bonovitz said in April 2006 that he wanted the firm to hit the 1,000-lawyer mark in two to four years. While that hasn't happened yet, Soroko said Bonovitz "accomplished an awful lot" and Soroko will look to continue the firm's growth.

He said there is no target number or time frame for that expansion. Soroko said his goal is just to continue to combine the firm's positive culture with a focus on financial performance and results.

Duane Morris recently moved into new space in New York City and will continue to grow that office. He said the firm would also look to expand in Chicago and California -- which houses the second largest group of Duane Morris attorneys other than Philadelphia.

While litigation is important to the firm, Soroko said Duane Morris' fastest growing areas are in corporate law and intellectual property.

Peggy Dixon of Abelson Legal Search called Bonovitz the "Energizer bunny" who "embraces the legal community, arts and everything he does with such enthusiasm." She said Soroko has big shoes to fill but has the experience and should make for a smooth transition. She said the switch would be a change at Duane Morris that is felt across all of its offices.

It's a challenge for the new chairperson and the organization anytime new leadership steps in after someone like Bonovitz, who had played a significant role in the firm for 10 years and "radically changed" the organization, Frank D'Amore of Attorney Career Catalysts said. Soroko is known in the community as a "lawyer's lawyer type of guy" whose legal ability is respected by those who try cases with or against him, D'Amore said. While he may be better known for his legal skill than his law firm leadership ability, D'Amore said he has all the tools to be successful in his new post.

In looking at recent management changes in Philadelphia's largest law firms, he pointed to Tad Decker of Cozen O'Connor and Carl M. Buchholz of Blank Rome as examples of how firms are picking leadership. Both Decker and Buchholz had management experience outside of a law firm before being brought in to head up their respective firms. Soroko is the more traditional type of succession story in that he was brought up through the firm and ascended to chairman, D'Amore said. He said the significance of the more recent style of leadership changes is that law firms are more like a business than ever. He said it is only a matter of time before law firms start putting nonlawyers in the top leadership positions.

Soroko is the eighth chairman of Duane Morris. He has focused his practice on securities litigation, financial services, corporate governance, class action defense and lawyer liability. In 2006, he represented Pennsylvania judges before the state Supreme Court, where he helped secure a ruling that reinstated pay raises to state judges. He is the co-founder of the Philadelphia Lawyers chapter of the Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy Studies and serves as the director and treasurer of the Harrisburg-based think tank the Commonwealth Foundation.

Reprinted with permission from The Legal Intelligencer, © ALM Media Properties LLC. All rights reserved.