Peter Mullen, who helped build Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP into one of the world's largest, most profitable law firms, died on Oct. 15 at age 83. While Joseph Flom, who died earlier this year at age 87, is credited for much of Skadden's success because of his exceptional skills as an M&A lawyer and business generator, it was Mullen's abilities as a manager and strategic thinker that also transformed the firm into a diverse, international institution.
Mullen was "the gold standard of someone who ran a law firm well," says H. Rodgin Cohen, the senior partner at Sullivan & Cromwell LLP. Mullen was a key figure in the development of U.S. firms because he decisively disproved the once commonly held theory that "law firms can't develop strategies, law firms can't be managed," Cohen adds.
If Flom was the face of the firm to corporate America, Mullen was "the real hero" of its "development into an institution," said retired Skadden partner James Freund at a memorial service for Mullen on Oct. 20 at the Church of Saint Joseph in Bronxville, N.Y. One of Mullen's most important skills was his ability to handle Flom, Freund added.
"When Joe asked Peter to take over as executive partner, Peter said he wouldn't do it if Joe were going to second-guess him. Joe replied that he would never go around him or behind his back, but he reserved the right to tell Peter directly what he thought. And that was good enough for Peter." Mullen, said Freund, "knew when and how to tell Joe bad news and how to handle Joe's occasional venting. And he mastered the knack of taking the endless stream of ideas that emanated from Joe and making the workable ones pay off while talking him out of the residue."
Mullen displayed the same deft touch with his other partners, whom he persuaded to go along with Flom's plans for expansion. Mullen's "confidence made us feel we could spend our time doing deals and going after business without having to worry that the enormous problems of running a booming law firm would get out of control and overwhelm us," Freund said.
Born in Manhattan in 1928, Mullen graduated from Georgetown University in 1948 and remained involved with the school for his entire life. He served on Georgetown's board of trustees from 1982 to 1998 and was its chairman from 1985 to 1992. Father Leo O'Donovan, a former president of the university, officiated at Mullen's memorial service.
After graduating from Columbia Law School in 1951, Mullen joined Dewey Ballantine LLP before moving to Skadden in 1961. He made partner the next year and became managing partner in 1967, when the firm had just a few dozen attorneys.
A corporate lawyer, Mullen was executive partner from 1981 to his retirement in 1994, when Skadden had 1,000 lawyers and 18 offices. By then, Skadden was no longer a firm on the margins of the New York corporate bar but a model for large, multinational law firms with a diverse array of practice areas.
It was in the 1970s that Skadden opened offices in Boston, Wilmington, Del., and Washington, but that didn't stanch the firm's or Mullen's ambitions. "By the late 1970s, Peter needed to build out the base that we needed to most effectively serve our clients," says Robert Sheehan, who worked for Mullen as an associate and succeeded him as executive partner in 1994. In 1978 Mullen oversaw a strategic plan that identified markets and practice areas Skadden should enter in the years ahead.
By the time Sheehan took over as executive partner, he recalls, the firm had lawyers in 23 of the 25 areas. It opened offices in Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco in the 1980s, and expanded overseas, with outposts in London, Paris, Beijing, Hong Kong and Tokyo, among other places. Mullen hired many of the lateral partners who helped fuel the firm's growth and continued to oversee the overseas offices until his retirement in 1998.
While Flom was a legendary raconteur and the subject of innumerable stories, Mullen was a more measured personality. Running a law firm requires "someone who's successful in keeping things on an even keel," says Sheehan, who as an associate often worked in Mullen's office and saw him interact with clients and partners. "It wasn't Peter's role, style, strength or personality to flash like a comet across the sky." Where Flom was often combative, Sheehan says, "Peter would ask you questions and make suggestions about what you might want to do."