In probably the worst kept secret in Chicago legal circles, Kirkland & Ellis has confirmed that partner Jon Ballis will become its next chair when highly-rated incumbent Jeffrey Hammes steps down in February 2020.
Ballis’ elevation was officially confirmed last week, though Legal Business reported the succession plan back in July. Nevertheless, the Chicago-based private equity specialist faces a challenge in taking over from a leader who transformed Kirkland from regional challenger to unquestioned global elite.
Hammes’ decade at the helm of Kirkland’s 15-member ruling body will come to an end after a one-year extension to his third three-year term.
Taking over in 2010 from veteran litigator Thomas Yannucci, the ambitious Hammes exerted absolute power in a firm which prides itself on lean management, driving its growth to this year become the world’s top-billing law firm at $3.165bn.
In Legal Business’s cover feature on Kirkland this summer, a former partner described Hammes as ‘When he comes into a room, he high-fives. He does not take no for an answer. Leads from the front and his decision is the only one that matters.’
Hammes joined Kirkland’s Chicago base in 1985, making partner in 1991, and quickly made his name with marquee client Bain Capital and for fronting Kirkland’s expansion through California. He led the San Francisco arm after its 2003 launch and opened the Palo Alto branch in 2008.
He is credited with some bold moves during his time as chair, including making heavy investments to bring in a string of high-billing partners and in the repositioning of its London branch from a service office to a core element of Kirkland’s business.
A member of the management committee since 2015 and another Bain relationship partner, chairman-elect Ballis started his career at Illinois rival Sidley Austin before joining Kirkland 20 years ago. He had been tipped to replace Hammes for months and played a part in some of the firm’s recent headline laterals, including the $10m hire of Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer’s veteran David Higgins last year.
Ballis is, however, expected to usher in a more consensual style than Hammes, in line with Kirkland’s transformation from challenger to the highest levels of global law.
The early anointment of the next chair is not unusual for Kirkland, with Hammes himself positioned to take over from veteran litigator Thomas Yannucci as early as 2006. ‘There is no election,’ one former partner told Legal Business. ‘People “emerge”, it is very rarely a surprise. Everybody knows what is going to happen before it happens.’
For more on Hammes’ leadership and Kirkland’s dramatic rise, see ‘Wrecking Ball’ (£)