New Hahn Loeser CEO will lean on coaching background

Marc Kessler is a highly regarded business litigator, but it's his experience as a youth sports coach, not his lawyering skills, that could be his greatest asset in growing one of Northeast Ohio's longstanding law firms.

Effective March 15, Kessler, 50, replaced Lawrence Oscar as Cleveland-based Hahn Loeser & Parks LLP's CEO and managing partner.

To further the firm's ongoing pursuit of growth, Kessler is focusing on teamwork and collaboration, and he's bringing a coach's perspective to that.

"I think every person is different, and what motivates each person is different," said Kessler, a sports fan who played football in college and coached teams for his kids in hockey, football and lacrosse. "I once had a coach who was a yeller, who'd go around stamping on the ground. Some people that turns off, and you don't get them motivated."

He added, "I have a passion for leading. And as the leader of this firm, I have to be adaptable to the personalities and identify what motivates them so we can make them better lawyers."

Oscar, 60, has held the dual CEO and managing partner roles since January 2009, when he took over for Stephen Knerly Jr. The firm likes keeping the dual titles for its top leader because it reinforces the role isn't merely an administrative job to its partners and associates, but a true leadership one. He's staying with the firm, continuing his work that focuses largely on corporate and business bankruptcy.

The firm had been considering the leadership transition since the third quarter of 2016. Oscar said that firms of Hahn Loeser's size, in the 50-200 lawyer range, tend to have managing partners for about seven years, so the timing was on par with others for a change. This year would've been Oscar's ninth in the managing partner role. His predecessor held the position for about 14.

While many firms talk about how client demands are really reshaping legal services, and industry reports, like one from Thomson Reuters, illustrate the last 10 years in the business as a decade of fundamental change, Hahn Loeser doesn't outwardly convey many pressures from the industry's evolution.

The market may be generally stagnant — demand for legal services has never quite recovered to pre-recession levels, according to Thomson Reuters — but cross-selling opportunities should keep lawyers busy. Alternative billing is available, but Kessler posits that the bulk of the firm's clients opt for traditional billing and fees.

"In some ways, Hahn Loeser disagrees that there are major changes in the industry," Oscar said. "There are. But the important one is how you serve clients. And that isn't changing for us."

That's the "North Star" driving the firm's decision-making, he said. And it's similarly behind the desire for internal collaboration.

Firm officials declined to discuss revenues but said a two-pronged result of collaboration should be the funneling of more work to attorneys while benefiting client service.

"If we know ourselves better as a firm, each individual, then we are much better able to serve clients," Oscar said. "Marc appreciates that with a background as a litigator, which I'm not, and having a coaching style of personality. He's really dedicated to getting to know everyone."

Kessler will remain based in Columbus, where he is in charge of that office's litigation practice.

Sounding like a coach highlighting their players' skills, Kessler mentions lawyers in their offices from Florida to California by name, identifying each by unique talents and expertise before citing examples where a cybersecurity lawyer in Chicago could — or should — be invited to look at work involving banking clients in Ohio.

It's not a novel approach, but one the firm seems to be zeroing in on as a way to shape the firm moving forward.

Fostering connectivity should further promote a tight and even fun culture that supports lawyer retention — something clearly important to Kessler as he discussed the challenges of finding and keeping the best young attorneys facing all law firms.

Kessler said he wants to get attorneys together more often, which is something that sounds great in principle but in reality can simply fall by the wayside for busy attorneys. He referenced firm retreats and celebrating "life successes." He mentioned how the annual Christmas parties aren't divvied into practice groups, but involve the firm as a whole.

Kessler intends to facilitate more camaraderie and ensuring lawyers truly understand each other well enough to work together in novel ways. Oscar lauded that goal, conceding that a greater focus there is an innovative objective from other firm leaders.

"I think he'll be challenging our partner-meeting concept and how we will be getting to know each other even better," he said.

At a 97-year-old firm with some 110 attorneys and no shortage of capable partners, it was that coaching background that helped separate Kessler from a pack of potential leaders, Oscar said, as it should help him further connectivity and collaboration among their lawyer base that now covers six offices in Ohio, Florida, Chicago and California.

Kessler sees Chicago, Florida and Columbus as strong areas for adding attorneys and growing the firm's business, again reinforcing the need for collaboration and the offices working together on client matters.

Oscar said the firm saw benefits in bringing "fresh ideas" to facilitate its ongoing pursuit of growth.

"The time is right, now, in the cycle of things," he said.

In terms of other development, the firm is looking to build out its newest offices in California and Chicago.

"We are going to build up locations in our geographic footprint we have currently," Kessler said. "But our eyes are always open and we are always looking for other opportunities."

New markets or practices seemingly aren't on the firm's radar at this time. Litigation and work for high-net-worth individuals (big business in Florida) remain Hahn Loeser's bread and butter, though practices developed in recent years under Oscar include work in cybersecurity and intellectual property.

A new office to support a client is always a possibility, though.

"But it's got to be client-driven," Kessler said, driving home the firm's guiding focus. "If we don't add value for clients, then it's all for naught."