William Kirsch: Lawyer Becomes The CEO

Tuesday, January 4, 2005
Jaime Levy Pessin
Chicago Lawyer
April, 2005

CEO Bill Kirsch's move from attorney to insurance company head is highlighted in Chicago Lawyer magazine

For many lawyers, reaching the top echelons of their firms is the highest mark of success.

For William S. Kirsch, being a partner on the top committee of Kirkland & Ellis wasn't enough. Last August, he signed on as CEO of Indiana-based insurance company Conseco, Inc., which had been one of his corporate clients.

Now, Kirsch is leading a company that in 2003 emerged from its $6.5 billion Chapter 11 bankruptcy, the third largest in U.S. history.

In an interview in his Merchandise Mart conference room, Kirsch spoke about how he has meshed the practice of law with learning to manage one of the city's biggest law firms, and how he transferred those skills to running a large, publicly traded company. In many ways, he said, the roles haven't been all that different.

"You rely on the same skill sets and the same values, and you devise a strategy that maximizes a company's existing resources and tries to deploy them in a more valuable way," he said. "Anyone who thinks being a lawyer means that the practice of law - the delivery of legal evaluation, analysis and product - is an end in itself isn't a 360-degree lawyer."

Taking the helm

Conseco, founded in 1979 near Indianapolis, expanded quickly through a series of acquisitions. But some of these moves, most notably the $6 billion purchase in 1998 of Green Tree Financial, hurt the company's performance. Conseco filed for bankruptcy in September 2002.

While at Kirkland, Kirsch began serving Conseco in 2002, becoming its general counsel and secretary in September 2003, when the company emerged from bankruptcy. Still, he remained a partner at Kirkland until August 2004, when he accepted the top position at Conseco. Market analysts were surprised when Conseco named him CEO, and the company's stock price immediately fell to $15.43; since then, though, it has climbed to a current price above $20.

Kirsch, 48, said his business sense developed over his 23-year career at Kirkland & Ellis, where he started his career out of Stanford Law School as a corporate lawyer. He has always seen his role of lawyer as being a trusted business advisee.

"Being a lawyer is all about using law to deliver value to your customer; to your client helping them balance their objectives with the legal constraints they need to be mindful of," he said. With that notion of client service as his guidepost, Kirsch worked his way up through the ranks of Kirkland's management, working on compensation, finance and other committees until he became part of the firm's top committee in 1997. When asked how he ended up on the management track, he said it was "Darwinian."

"You either have a natural curiosity that leads you there, or you don't," he said. "Either you're interested in more than the law and how you provide legal services to your clients, or you're not. [My] natural curiosity, in my case, brought me to asking questions that there were answers to, or that we needed to find answers to."

Along with that curiosity, he said, having a good mentor - Kirkland & Ellis partner and M&A giant Jack Levin - helped.

"It's an intangible, but tremendous value," he said. "No one's born with great leadership skills. They need to be learned, developed and continuously defined."

Because the firm's leaders also continue their legal practices, he was able to stay in touch with both lawyers and clients' needs, which helped to keep his business skills sharp. Being attuned to these needs, he said, made him more able to "leverage" his leadership.

"It's really about having an organization that you can align to accomplish your goals," he said. "You have to have everyone understand the objectives and goals. It's important that they work together as a team to deliver value for your organization, which is ultimately about making customers happy."

The CEO lawyer

The transition from lawyer to CEO wasn't entirely seamless. Kirsch had to learn how to operate within a totally new business structure, although it helped that he'd already been working closely with Conseco, he said.

"It required me to immerse myself completely in understanding the new business," he said. "You have to put together a strategy to know what you want to learn and how, and then prioritize. You make adjustments in a prioritized and strategic way, so as you make adjustments it makes you stronger, not weaker."

Kirsch said he also had to rethink how a business strategy should relate to his customers, considering the customer base of an insurance company is very different from that of a law firm.

"Insurance at a certain level is about driving costs down and delivering valuable products in relation to your cost structure. You use your cost structure to help deliver a more valuable product," he said. "In law, if you have a valuable product, there's less competition for price."

Another difference is that, unlike a law firm, support staff in an insurance business has more direct contact with customers. "In insurance, your operations actually make a difference in the quality of service to customers."

But those are the specific differences between a law firm and an insurance company. For lawyers looking to rise through the ranks of their firms' management or transition into running another business, Kirsch said one skill is critical: judgment.

"Being good at anything challenging is about making the right judgments. Whether in team building, strategy or the execution of strategy," he said. "You try to make good judgments through diligently studying relevant information and competing points of view, and trying to make a pure judgment that's devoid of politics or other agenda."

As for those lawyers considering whether they want to get onto a management track, Kirsch offered this: "I would advise people to always understand themselves and to always make a decision in the context of their own personal strengths and weaknesses," he said. "If you get less focused on engineering your career, you're more apt to engineer yourself in the wrong direction. You need to listen to your little voice."

"No matter what you do or where you do it, you're really a steward," he continued. "It's not about you, it's about the business."

Reproduced with permission from Chicago Lawyer magazine published by the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin at www.lawbulletin.com