By Cliff Collins
When Maine attorney Robert E. Hirshon assumed the American Bar Association presidency in 2001, the time commitment of that post compelled him to contemplate what he would do afterward.
After 30 years of practicing with a Portland, Maine, firm, he was entering his mid-50s and eager for the challenge of taking on a full-time management position. The one he chose was to move to the other Portland to lead the Tonkon Torp firm as its chief executive officer. He sees Tonkon’s hiring decision to choose 'someone outside not just the law firm, but (also from outside) Portland, Oregon' as 'innovative, fairly gutsy.'
The ABA past-president joined the 74-lawyer firm in July. Hirshon has seen colleagues become CEOs of companies, and general counsels move into CEO or chief financial officer positions. But becoming CEO 'within a law firm, that is a more recent trend, but a natural extension' in what Hirshon describes as a more 'business-centric world, which forces law firms to be more business minded, as they seek to maintain their core professional values.'
Tonkon Torp’s move puts the firm right in tune with the theme playing out in mid-size and larger firms throughout the country: moving from being managed by committees of partners to a business model that consolidates key management functions in a smaller management team, increasingly headed by a full-time managing partner or CEO. In many cases nationally, those CEOs are non-lawyers; but Hirshon combines what he calls an 'eclectic' legal practice experience with experience serving on his Maine firm’s management board and as a department head and as a 'hands on' CEO of the world’s largest professional association, the ABA. Hirshon is responsible for Tonkon Torp’s overall management and operations, and reports to its managing board of partners, headed by attorney Kenneth D. Stephens.
The decision to leave his native Maine and to give up the practice of law was not easy, he admits. But he says he was familiar with Portland and Oregon, has many friends here, and after meeting the individuals he would be leading, believed that the firm shared with him 'the same philosophical grounding.' Tonkon Torp’s dedicated lawyers also reminded him of his previous firm. Moreover, 'the city felt comfortable, it felt right,' and he thinks the two Portlands have many similarities beyond the same name, including a smaller-town feeling than other metropolises that beckoned. Third, 'I was given the opportunity to help define my job, my role in this firm, and that was important to me.'
The young Bob grew up in a family dominated by professionals — but in the medical, not legal, field. The son of a dentist, Hirshon concedes that his parents 'were not ecstatic with my decision' to aim toward law school. Hirshon was judged the best debater in Maine high schools and received numerous scholarship offers. His father was determined that his son enter Princeton University, and Bob was equally determined to go west, to the University of California, Berkeley. The compromise, as Hirshon puts it, was the University of Michigan, where he completed his bachelor’s and law degrees.
'I wanted to become a lawyer because I felt I could make a contribution to society,' Hirshon explains. The fact that pre-med students, which he was in his first year at Michigan, were obliged to take science labs and classes at 8 a.m. on Saturdays had nothing to do with his choice, he insists. Rather, he was inspired by the late 1960s’ spirit of service that pervaded many campuses.
After passing the bar, he joined the firm Drummond, Woodsum & MacMahon, where he remained for three decades. His practice first focused on plaintiffs’ and divorce work. Later he found himself representing large corporations, banks and insurers. For several years he was regional counsel for an asbestos manufactuer. He was lead counsel in Maine and New Hampshire for the Resolution Trust Corp. Most recently he focused his practice on regulatory and legislative matters. Hirshon long had been active in the ABA, previously served as president of the Maine State Bar Association and helped found and run a non-profit nursery and grade school, which each of his children attended.
Hirshon says law firms face a turning point when they reach 20 to 30 attorney members. They may have a manager who spends half time on management and half on practicing law, or some similar percentage, but that 'puts that person at a distinct disadvantage' in trying to build a practice, and a result is that 'a number of lawyers won’t do that.' But firms the size of Tonkon Torp and larger are hiring a full-time CEO and, in some cases, also a chief financial officer who practices full-time as a CFO and not as a lawyer, he says.
Hirshon has been the recipient of numerous awards and honorary degrees, including the National Association of Pro Bono Coordinators’ Reece Smith Special Service Award, and the Muskie Access to Justice Award. He has long encouraged lawyers to do pro bono work.
'The profession shines most brightly when it remembers the least fortunate among us,' he says. 'More than any other profession, lawyers give freely so that justice is available for all.'
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Cliff Collins is a Portland-area free-lance writer.
© 2003 Cliff Collins