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‘Accidental Laterals’ Spur Record Number of BigLaw Partner Moves

Posted Jan 29, 2009 9:04 AM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss

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More than 2,500 partners jumped from one large law firm to another in the year ending Sept. 30, a number that doesn’t even include lawyers joining new firms as a result of the dissolutions of Heller Ehrman, Thelen and Thacher Profitt.

The number—a 4 percent increase over the previous year—is a record, the American Lawyer reports in a story summarizing its annual survey findings. The growth was spurred partly by lawyers forced to leave—so-called accidental laterals, the story says. Another factor: Many lawyers were looking for more money or more financially stable firms.

Most lateral partners—17 percent—were corporate lawyers. Twelve percent were in the area of intellectual property, 11 percent in litigation, and 10 percent in banking and finance.

The publication treated acquisitions as lateral moves even if the firms had labeled them mergers. By its count, K&L Gates acquired the most lateral partners because of its acquisition of Kennedy Covington and Hughes & Luce.

The story says law firms that hire the most lateral partners also tend to shed the most. K&L Gates added 185 partners and lost 40; Reed Smith added 74 and lost 38, and DLA Piper added 58 and lost 37.

The firm that lost the most partners was Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, according to a separate chart. It lost 59 partners, which amounts to 17 percent of all partners.

“Clearly there's stress and opportunity in the marketplace,” the story says. “There is also the capacity for mistakes. In the urge to seize ‘stars’ and/or bulk up in key regions, some firms have doled out generous guarantees to their new hires. This is a controversial practice in good times; as the economic meltdown gets shoulder-high, guarantees may look especially unwise.”

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