It's out with the old, in with the new at Holland & Knight.
In a clean sweep that may reflect a desire for change among its ranks, three top leadership positions at Florida's second-largest law firm have turned over in the past week:
• Martha Barnett, a Tallahassee lobbyist and former American Bar Association president who was Holland & Knight's first female partner, lost her bid for re-election as board chair, a position she had held since 2003. A majority of the policymaking committee's 24 members selected Boston trial lawyer Ralph Lepore over Barnett.
• Darrell Kelley, who left his job as chief executive of Enterprise Florida, the state's economic-development agency, in 2005 to join Holland & Knight as chief operating officer, told the firm's staff this week that he was resigning, effective today. A successor has not been named.
• Howell Melton Jr., who was elected to a five-year term as managing partner in 2003, disclosed last month that he would not seek re-election. Last week, the 1,150-lawyer firm's equity partners chose to replace him with Miami attorney Steven Sonberg, who ran unopposed.
"I certainly was willing to serve again this year, if a majority of the people had wanted me to," Barnett, 60, said in an interview Thursday. "But we changed our managing partner this year, and I think there were people who felt it would be appropriate to have a change in who chaired the directors' committee as well."
In unseating Barnett, who will remain a rank-and-file board member through at least 2008, Holland & Knight's directors removed one of the firm's most visible and respected partners. Thursday night she was to serve as emcee of a 500-person fundraiser in Tallahassee featuring Supreme Court gadfly Jeffrey Toobin. Asked how her vision for the firm's future differs from successor Lepore's, Barnett said she was unaware of any significant disagreements.
Two years ago, Holland & Knight's leaders endured significant embarrassment over allegations that a Tampa partner accused of sexual harassment had been lightly reprimanded and then elevated, by Melton, to the position of chief operating officer. That promotion was rescinded a day after the St. Petersburg Times reported it. More recently, the firm addressed frustration over low per-partner profits by squeezing out dozens of underperforming shareholders and adopting new, tougher standards for promoting associate lawyers to partner status. The changes led to significant gains for the remaining shareholders.
Although chief operating officer Kelley was unavailable for comment Thursday, spokeswoman Karen McBride said he told her he was leaving because Melton, who recruited him, would no longer need him as a top aide. McBride said that Kelley indicated he was considering "many interesting (job) opportunities" outside the firm.
Scott Barancik can be reached at email@example.com or