Bringing in a Ringer
Lateral Partners Might Have Client Bases, But High-Profile Names Have Cachet
Posted Aug 1, 2004 2:57 PM CST
By Molly McDonough
What would you say if after working at breakneck pace to make partner, you were asked to bend over backward to recruit a lawyer at equal or better pay who has not been in practice for years and comes with no portable business?
If the recruit happens to be former Delaware Chief Justice E. Norman Veasey, the answer is easy: Welcome aboard!
Veasey, who joined Weil, Gotshal & Manges in June as a senior partner, is feeling the love.
“I feel extremely welcomed,” says Veasey, who after 12 years on the bench will serve as the firm’s strategic adviser for clients, especially in the realm of corporate governance. He will work in the firm’s Wilmington, Del., office and at its headquarters in New York City.
“I’m very comfortable with the private practice of law, although I haven’t done any of it for 12 years,” says Veasey, who practiced more than 34 years and was his firm’s manager before taking the chief justice appointment in 1992.
“A lot has changed in 12 years, but a lot has remained the same,” Veasey says. The practice still relies on competence, preparation, ethics and hard work, he notes. “That’s what I hope to bring to this new relationship.”
Despite his enthusiasm, making the transition from the public sector to private practice can be unnerving.
While Veasey says he is comfortable with the business side of the practice, others might find it a difficult adjustment to have to hustle for clients.
That doesn’t stop law firms from bidding high for high-profile public servants, such as Solicitor General Ted Olson, who after much speculation announced in July that he would be going back into private practice at Gibson Dunn & Crutcher at the end of the Supreme Court’s term. As a partner in the Washington, D.C., office, he will lead the firm’s client crisis-management team.
Often, big-name public sector lawyers like Olson and Veasey, who also was blessed with lots of choices, already have law firm experience. “It’s not like they’re not used to firm life and they don’t know how to develop a book of business,” says Lisa R. Smith, a law firm consultant at Hildebrandt International in Washington, D.C.
Still, for some it’s not a very comfortable transition.
In 1997, when James B. Burns left his post as U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Illinois, he joined the Chicago office of Sidley & Austin with fanfare. But his tenure would be brief, about a year and a half, before he decided to go back into public service. “I never particularly liked the business side of the private sector,” says Burns, who is now inspector general for the Illinois secretary of state’s office. “Some take to it like fish to water, and some don’t.”
The story was different for his former deputy and chosen successor, Scott R. Lassar. In 2001, after his tenure as U.S. attorney, Lassar also joined Sidley & Austin (which by then had appended “Brown & Wood” to its name). He has managed to develop a strong practice.
A notable difference between Burns and Lassar had to do with practice trends. Burns just missed the corporate governance boom that hit the legal profession post-Enron. But Lassar landed at Sidley just in time to market himself to his partners and clients as an expert in the area.
“My timing was good,” says Lassar, who is admittedly more comfortable with the sales side of law practice. “The post-Enron era hit shortly after I went back to private practice. So it’s been a very active time for the specialty I have, particularly internal investigations and defending people before the SEC.”
Lassar wasted no time at Sidley getting his name out. He first met with as many partners and practice groups as possible in Chicago, New York City and Washington, D.C. He wanted his colleagues to think of him and put his skills to use before they referred business outside the firm. He also met with the firm’s current clients and, for good measure, made the rounds with in-house counsel who weren’t yet referring matters to Sidley. Although Lassar worked hard to develop his practice, he acknowledged that getting established takes time and that it helped that the firm had work for him to do right away.
BUILDING AROUND THE HIRE
Guy N. Halgren, chairman of the executive committee at the San Diego office of Sheppard Mullin Richter & Hampton, says there are trade-offs when choosing a high-profile lawyer over a lateral partner who brings clients.
Sheppard Mullin’s latest acquisitions are Roscoe C. Howard, who just left his job as the U.S. attorney for Washington, D.C., and his civil chief, Mark E. Nagle.
The pair will be expected to build the firm’s white-collar practice in the D.C. area.“Roscoe’s contacts made it an easy decision for us to build around him rather than bringing in a lateral partner,” Halgren says.
A public sector lawyer has distinct attributes. The challenge, Halgren says, is finding someone who will be good with clients, who is smart and practical, and who has the level of expertise and experience that a firm needs. These characteristics are weighed against what a lateral partner can bring with an established practice.
Sometimes lateral partners have reached their peak and there is more value in hiring someone without clients who has growth potential, Halgren says.
Howard and Nagle fit Sheppard Mullin’s needs, says Halgren. He adds that there was an overwhelmingly positive response to the hires from the partnership when the two were voted aboard. “We won’t have any trouble introducing Roscoe to our clients, and we’re hopeful he will develop a lot of business,” Halgren says.
But Halgren isn’t expecting miracles, nor should he, says Hildebrandt’s Smith. “It can take a while, and law firms have historically had very short time horizons,” she says. “You really need to have a two-year plan for someone to come in without a book of business.”
While there is no set time frame for Howard and Nagle to perform, Halgren says there is a long-range plan in place. “We don’t want to get too tied down in a detailed plan,” he says, adding that right now the only plan is to “make the introductions, do the marketing and make sure people know the resources we have.”
After all, mileage from a new hire’s high profile is the firm’s most immediate benefit.