Changing of the guard at LeClairRyan

A founder and namesake attorney of one of Richmond’s biggest law firms has stepped aside as CEO, making way for a New Jersey lawyer to take control in the midst of the firm’s push for nationwide expansion.

David Freinberg became CEO of LeClairRyan effective July 1. Gary LeClair, who along with Dennis Ryan founded the firm in Richmond in 1988, will remain chairman and will continue his legal practice.

The passing of the baton is part of a succession plan that LeClair said the firm began crafting in 2004.

“Good companies always have a succession plan,” said LeClair. “We looked at our 125 shareholders and said who do we think will be best for this?”

Freinberg, 55, joined the fold in 2008 when his firm, Seiden Wayne, was acquired by LeClairRyan.

Freinberg was picked as the chosen one a year ago and has been working in a transition period as chief practice officer.

The New York native will run the show from LeClairRyan’s office in Newark, N.J., marking the first time the firm’s head has not resided in Richmond.

Although it’s often thought of as a Richmond-based firm, that identity is mostly symbolic these days, LeClair said.

“We’re a firm that does not have a headquarters,” LeClair said. “We’re not a Richmond firm. We’re a national firm.”

That’s not to diminish what Richmond means to the firm, he said.

“Clearly Richmond is an important office for us,” said LeClair, who still lives in town. “This is where we were founded. A very important branch of our family tree was planted here. But we have more lawyers outside of Virginia than we do in Virginia.

In fact, 70 percent of the firm’s 340 attorneys work outside of Richmond at its 20 other offices.

Freinberg, who graduated from Columbia University and received his law degree from the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, steps in at a time when the firm is carrying out a fairly aggressive expansion plan.

LeClairRyan has been looking to acquire other firms around the country or to attract lawyers from other firms to cross over.

Last week it absorbed a law firm in New York, adding 14 new attorneys. It also lured lawyers over from a larger competitor to form a Rochester office in December and added attorneys to its offices in Roanoke, Washington, Chicago and San Francisco. Florida and Texas are some of its next major target areas.

Freinberg said he’ll keep the firm on that path.

“We’re continuing to look at growth prospects,” Freinberg said. “We are constantly evolving. One of my tasks is to execute on our long-term strategy.”

LeClair said the change will allow him to focus more on his own cases, something he hasn’t been able to devote his full attention to in 24 years.

“I’m now down to two jobs,” LeClair said. “I’ve never given up my practice, but it’s been really hard to balance all these years.”

At 56, LeClair won’t be going anywhere anytime soon, but said that the plan the firm has put in place will make sure the business he and Dennis Ryan built from the ground up will be around long after he’s gone.

“First-generation firms sometime stumble,” LeClair said. “If you want the firm to outlive the founders, you have to do it right.”

Michael Schwartz covers the legal industry for BizSense. Please send news tips to [email protected].

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