New Smith Haughey COO brings just the right experience to the job



by Cynthia Price
Legal News

Lori Gibson has all the bases covered in terms of the broad business skills and understandings that law firm Chief Operating Officers need to have at their command.

As she joins  Smith Haughey Rice and Roegge, Gibson brings the best of both worlds: an experienced operations professional, she is also an attorney with all the affinity for the shareholders’ positions that implies.

“The fact that I’m a lawyer and that I practiced law is very valuable because I understand what motivates lawyers, how they think, what their challenges are, as well as what their needs are. And then coupled with my operational experience, I think it really gives me a good background to oversee the business functions so that the attorneys can do what they do best.”

Gibson will fill the COO role full-time and manage the firm’s finance, Human Resources, technology, marketing and facilities operations, as well as facilitating business strategic planning.

Her operations experience was gained primarily at Spectrum Health over the last seven years. She followed several years as Director of Human Resources with a stint as Vice President of Operations for Spectrum Health Continuing Care. It was there, she says, that she learned ‘the real nuts and bolts” of operations.

“When I was put in charge of operations for Continuing Care, my role really morphed,” Gibson says. “I oversaw compliance, quality control, human resources including benefits and training, development of policies. It was really everything from high level strategic planning for where we wanted to be in three to five years, to carrying out the plan ... making sure that we were running profitably, finding more efficient ways to do things ... and ensuring that we were staffing right and bringing in the best people.”

Spectrum Health was Gibson’s client when she worked as an attorney at Warner, Norcross and Judd. She went to Wheaton College and received an M.S. from the University of Michigan before receiving her J.D. from the University of Minnesota.

“I’m actually from the Detroit area, from Milford, but I had been living in Minnesota for a few years after college, so I stayed there and went to law school.
Minneapolis is great, but I always knew I’d come back to Michigan.”

Now living in Grandville, she says she and her husband and two sons, aged 13 and 15, love being back in Michigan and seeing the Grand Rapids area thrive.
A fellow of the American College of Healthcare Executives, with a Senior Professional in Human Resources certification, Gibson says she is looking forward to the challenge of maintaining Smith Haughey’s viability in the statewide legal market.

“Smith is an old firm, and was primarily known as a litigation firm, but that has changed significantly,” she explains.

The firm started out in 1941, although one of its co-founders, Clifford Mitts, had been in solo practice for several years prior to that. In 1948, Mitts and partner “Bud” Smith added David O. Haughey, and in 1950 the firm became Mitts, Smith and Haughey. The well-respected L. Roland Roegge joined in 1962 and continues with the firm today. Along the way, former banking executive Robert Rice’s name was added to the masthead.

In 1990, the firm expanded into the Traverse City market, and that office has now grown to 29 attorneys. The opening of an Ann Arbor office followed in 2002. Altogether, 94 attorneys comprise the firm.

Now, Gibson adds, “We’ve really developed the full range of practice areas, and  we want to continue to expand in some of those areas — we’re strategically looking in those areas where we really want to grow.”

Since one of those practice areas is health care law, Gibson’s experience will once again serve the firm well. Smith Haughey already has a Health Industry Team, along with teams  in construction, renewable energy, and agriculture and agribusiness.

“We’re a full service law firm, and I think that our niche is small and mid-sized businesses. We would like to grow our clientele throughout the state,” Gibson adds.
Gibson will report to the CEO, William Hondorp, who continues his practice. Smith Haughey has a governing board made up of attorneys who set the firm’s direction.

Over the past few decades, the establishment of a Chief Operating Officer, which goes by a number of other names including firm administrator and business officer, has increasingly become the paradigm. As a rule, the difference between a Managing Partner/CEO and a COO is that the COO’s primary expertise is in running a business, something which practicing lawyers may not be trained for. However, there are a vast number of management models a law firm may choose.
“In general, the Managing Partner only serves in that capacity for a limited time, which makes it hard. Attorneys don’t want to lose their skills and they don’t want to lose their clients,” says Gibson.

In some cases, the Managing Partner or CEO may give up his or her entire practice for a brief period; in others a 50-50 balance seems to work; and in yet others, the structure calls for the Managing Partner to generate substantial billable hours and devote some small portion of the day to management. Research is ongoing into which model makes for the most successful law firms, but for the foreseeable future, firms will continue to strike their own balances and make divergent decisions about what works best for them.

In the meantime, Lori Gibson is very happy about the choices Smith Haughey has made.

“I always really liked the law firm environment. And this is a nice opportunity to get back into that environment but keep working on business operations,” she says.