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Sapp passes baton to Canter at MBF


“I see very little that goes on within this law firm that should not be openly discussed and communicated with associates. They are very much the future of the law firm, and the sooner we get them thinking like they’re owners or ought to be owners of the firm, the better off we’re going to be.”

Richard J. Canter

The New Year will bring a new managing partner and changes in the firm’s management system for Michael Best & Friedrich LLP.

The firm announced in early November that Richard J. Canter, a partner in its Milwaukee office and a member of its health law practice group, will succeed John R. Sapp as firm-wide managing partner, effective Jan. 1. Also in January, the firm will implement some structural changes devised as part of a recently completed governance study, Sapp said.

“It’s really highly advantageous,” Sapp said during an interview. “If we’re going to have a new and changed structure, this is the perfect time to put someone else in place, as opposed to my taking that for a year or so and putting my own imprint on the new system.”

Canter, who joined the firm in 1989 and had a substantial role in building the firm’s health law practice, has long been a member of the firm’s management committee and has chaired it twice, most recently for a term that ended in June.

New Manager, New Structure

The new system will bring more structure and definition to management roles within the firm, including those of the management committee and its chair and the leaders of the firm’s practice areas, Sapp said. He added that the changes do not represent a “dramatic change in philosophy.”

Canter agreed, noting that the study was part of an effort to review the firm’s management and governance in light of growth in the firm’s personnel and revenue and changes in the business over the past several years. There will be no “fundamental shift” with the changes, he said.

“We have the same core leadership group,” Canter said. “We’re comfortable with our overall direction.”

But, he added, “You can always do a better job of communicating that direction.”

A 1976 graduate, cum laude, of Hofstra University School of Law, Canter said that while he has not been formally educated in management, he has learned the principles through his work with large health care clients and his service on the firm’s management committee.

“Over time, through watching, interacting, you develop a style,” Canter said. “One thing that I’ve learned from John is that a lot of things resolve themselves.

“Especially in an environment like this, something that is a tremendously contentious, hot, burning issue today — by tomorrow afternoon, there’s a chance it will have worked itself out.”

Management Style

Canter said that he told the firm’s partners and associates in November that he wants to be known as having a “very candid, open management style,” while still “always being prepared to make decisions as necessary.” He also hopes to lead by example, he said.

Canter does not see a need to differentiate between associates and partners when it comes to firm communication.

“I see very little that goes on within this law firm that should not be openly discussed and communicated with associates,” Canter said. “They are very much the future of the law firm, and the sooner we get them thinking like they’re owners or ought to be owners of the firm, the better off we’re going to be.”

Associates and partners alike will be required to develop personal practice plans describing their individual goals and objectives as part of the new system, he added.
“That’s something that may have been done informally, but we’re going to try to bring some more discipline to that,” Canter said.

The management fine-tuning will not include any change in the firm’s marketing philosophy, Sapp said. Canter also said that the firm will continue to emphasize its existing strengths in practi

“We are a business law firm, and each of the different practice areas are important to functioning as a business law firm,” he said.

Although the firm has national and international presences, it will continue to focus on its Midwest base, Canter said.

“We do not expect, like some of the Chicago firms, to insist on having a New York office or a Los Angeles office,” Canter said.

While he said the Wisconsin economy has been extremely important to the firm’s practice and development, Canter said that the firm will also continue to put emphasis on the Chicago marketplace, due to its proximity and size.

“We see the Chicago office as being a very important part of our future, just because of some of the realities of the limitations of the Wisconsin marketplace,” he said.

Sapp’s Role

Sapp, who presided over a five-fold increase in revenue during his term as the firm’s managing partner, said that he will remain active in its operation, assisting from an administrative standpoint and focusing on client relationships. He will serve as a senior partner, a special title that is awarded on a case-by-case basis within the firm, he said.

The managing partner role, which ev-olved over the course of his 13-year term to eventually take up about 90 percent of his time, has not been “a job lacking in stresses and challenges” despite the “very congenial group” he managed, Sapp said.


Michael Best & Friedrich LLP

“Handling all of the issues involving 350 lawyers on a day-to-day basis is challenging,” he said. “So I probably look forward to a bit more structure in my life.”

While heading the firm, Sapp co-authored a book on making partner and a chapter in another book that offers insights on managing law firms. A 1969 graduate, with distinction, of Duke University Law School, Sapp said that he will be available to Canter “for consultation as requested.”

“One of the most important things that one can do as a former CEO is to make very sure that you are not intruding on the turf of your successor, and I think that’s one of the most difficult things for former CEO types to do,” he said. “I am going to make very sure that I am of assistance as opposed to a complication.”

Canter said that through a combination of factors, including his management style, Sapp’s assistance, and the changes in management structure, he hopes to evenly balance his time between practicing law and managing the firm.

“I have said and will continue to say that my goal is to be 50-50,” he said. “That 50-50 may be 80-80, I don’t know.”

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