Posted May 02, 2009 01:10 am CDT
“I’m here to discuss the hostile takeover of your firm.”
When Los Angeles litigator Ann Marie Mortimer first stepped into the boardroom of Hunton & Williams’ Richmond, Va., offices, the twinkle in her eye belied the menace of her words. Mortimer and a similarly merry band of lawyers from former trial boutique O’Donnell & Mortimer were actually the ones being vetted as part of Hunton’s five-year national expansion campaign—a campaign specifically targeting experienced litigators.
Hunton has added more than 275 attorneys since January 2007, including 33 from fellow BigLaw firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld and 100 lateral hires from the now-defunct Jenkens & Gilchrist.
Now in the third year of its growth campaign, the nearly 1,000-lawyer firm ranks seventh in lateral partner hires among the Am Law 200 over the last two years.
However, as law firms continue to hemorrhage attorneys and staff in the economic meltdown, how does a firm poised for growth stay the course? Walfrido Martinez, Hunton’s managing partner, is counting on the calculated courting of established litigators like Mortimer and high-profile trial attorney Edward F. Fernandes—who left Akin Gump in February to split his time between Hunton’s Houston and Austin offices.
Martinez expects such acquisitions will add value to clients immediately. When times are challenging, “the investment window is shorter,” Martinez says. “You have to look at your people and redeploy them to other practices and maintain the investments you have made in these folks over the years.”
Hunton has made some serious investments since Martinez took the helm in 2006. The firm has two new California offices, and the Jenkens acquisitions have helped make Hunton one of the biggest non-Texas firms in Dallas. He also renewed the firm’s devotion to advocacy practices, particularly litigation, labor and employment, and competition and antitrust.
“Our firm has always remained rooted in those practices and never stopped investing in those practices when other firms rightfully focused on transactions,” Martinez says.
Hunton’s commitment to litigation, even as other law firms eyed transactional work from Wall Street financial houses, allowed the firm to woo top litigators looking for a new place to practice, with the notion that greater financial results would follow.
Although litigation was soft at the start of 2009, according to data from the Hildebrandt Institute and Citi Private Bank, Martinez and Mortimer say those numbers merely reflect the lull before the storm as economic challenges force companies to curb financial risks and contract disputes become more hotly contested.
“This is both a terrible time and a great time to be a litigator,” says Richard L. Wyatt Jr., co-head of Hunton & Williams’ litigation group and a former Akin Gump litigation chairman. “There is enormous opportunity.”
Hunton’s litigation practice remained busy throughout the firm’s 2008 fiscal year, with its activity level rising in the first two months of 2009, according to Martinez. The firm also anticipates a significant pickup in work stemming from white-collar and internal investigations as the federal government increases the number of task forces examining the economic meltdown. Restructuring work is also expected to boost real estate practices, Martinez says.
Hunton remains steadfast in its growth plan, but that doesn’t mean it is rushing things. Even when bringing on the large Jenkens group, the selection process was deliberate and drawn out, with each attorney considered on an individual basis, Mortimer says. Unanimity is required among Hunton’s shareholders to vote in a new lateral partner.
“There is a great humanity about these people,” says Mortimer, who thought of herself as a BigLaw refugee before joining as managing partner of Hunton’s Los Angeles office. There is also a lot of humor, Mortimer adds, recalling her faux takeover line on her visit with partners at the firm. Hunton & Williams’ management is careful to maintain camaraderie among its tightly knit group of lawyers, despite significant swelling of ranks on both coasts and in between.
“There are difficult times and really good times,” says Wyatt, who is based in Washington, D.C. “You need to build an institution to survive in both times because firms are really tested in economic times like today.”
It remains to be seen whether the civility will disappear as the firm grows and continues to navigate the recession. However, Mortimer is confident.
“When it comes to the core values in terms of integrity and excellence, there is a consistency,” she says. “It’s top down and bottom up; no matter what office you are in, it’s a shared value system.”
And Hunton’s top manager? After his interview Martinez had to run. He had a dinner appointment with a potential lateral who just happens to specialize in one of the firm’s key practice areas.