Moving to the Middle
Smaller firms get crack at bigger fish
Posted May 1, 2009 8:50 PM CDT
By Deborah L. Cohen
Martin D. Beirne is in the driver’s seat. Two years ago, the founding partner of Beirne, Maynard & Parsons—a Texas firm specializing in corporate litigation with offices in Houston and Dallas—might not have had a shot at recruiting top-tier talent from big-name firms.
But these days, pedigreed partners from large international firms are knocking on his door, eager to discuss moving to a more stable environment that holds increasing appeal for budget-sensitive clients.
“We consider ourselves very fortunate that we have the opportunity to have these discussions,” says Beirne, who in late March was close to bringing in two partners specializing in bankruptcy and restructuring from Am Law 100 firms. “They decided to get ahead of the curve.”
Job losses characterized by massive layoffs, including those at marquee Wall Street firms, totaled almost 10,000 (among them 4,046 lawyers) by March 31, according to Law Shucks, a website dedicated to tracking fallout in the legal industry during the economic downturn. With that trend comes the opportunity for a host of lesser-known regional players to go after a very rich pool of talent, including many attorneys who still hold coveted partner positions but can see the writing on the wall.
“The reality is they’re much more receptive to a conversation about a midtier firm than they were six months ago,” says John Cashman, a legal recruiter in Major, Lindsey & Africa’s Chicago office. He expects migration from big-name firms to regional ones to accelerate throughout 2009 as corporations shop for competitive rates and shift more of their business away from pricey international firms.
“I believe you’re going to see a lot more movement,” Cashman says. “All these regional firms, they haven’t really slowed down. They block and tackle. So they’re really poised to pick off people whose clients are balking.”
Mark Rust, managing partner of the Chicago office of Barnes & Thornburg, a growing Midwestern firm, is doing just that. The Chicago office alone recently hired three partners from McDermott Will & Emery, Jenner & Block, and Arnstein & Lehr. Rust says he expects to pick up more.
“The critical piece is to grow with people who are bringing their practices,” adds Rust, noting many of the candidates he had seen expressed concern that their current firms couldn’t sustain their billing rates for much longer. “They’re throwing in the towel and saying now is the time to make the move.”
Everett S. Ward, a Harvard-educated real estate attorney who in January joined the Chicago office of Quarles & Brady after three years at Jenner & Block, says he ultimately expects to build a bigger practice at his new firm.
“I think I will have more control over my destiny,” he says. “With the rate schedule at the larger firms, you’re going to lose clients.”