Biglaw, Lateral Moves, Litigators, Musical Chairs, Partner Issues, Sheila Birnbaum

Musical Chairs: Sheila Birnbaum Is Leaving Skadden

If you’re a big corporate defendant hoping to be represented by Sheila Birnbaum and you head over to Skadden Arps, sorry — you’re out of luck. Your princess is in another castle.

The so-called “Queen of Toxic Torts” is about to leave her longtime realm. Birnbaum, the legendary litigatrix who currently serves as co-head of Skadden’s mass torts and insurance litigation group, is decamping to a rival.

So where is Birnbaum taking her talents — and her bulging book of business, estimated at more than $30 million? And is anyone else going with her?

(Multiple UPDATES, including Skadden’s internal memo, after the jump.)

Sheila Birnbaum and another partner in the products liability group, Mark Cheffo, are leaving for — yup, you guessed it — Quinn Emanuel. Partners, raise your hand if you are not joining Quinn, which is gobbling up laterals left and right. See, e.g., last week’s controversial Weil Gotshal defectors.

It’s not known at this time whether other Skadden lawyers will be making the move with Birnbaum and Cheffo. If so, though, it wouldn’t be shocking. Birnbaum oversees roughly 60 lawyers at SASMF, as noted in this fascinating profile (which describes her journey from law professor to part-time practitioner at Skadden to mega-rainmaking partner). Her huge book of business, involving large and complex mass tort cases, requires a lot of manpower to service.

On the other hand, Quinn might want to put some of its own people on her matters too. We’ve been hearing that because of a slowdown on the intellectual property litigation side, QE has been shifting resources over to commercial litigation, which continues to boom. (By the way, if you have info for us on Quinn’s restructuring of its IP practice, feel free to email us or text us: 646-820-8477.)

So what could be motivating Birnbaum to leave Skadden, her professional home for more than 30 years? One possibility: the firm’s retirement policies. Birnbaum is either 72 or 73 73, so she’s already over the firm’s mandatory retirement age of 70 — which might not be that “mandatory,” at least for top business generators like Birnbaum. But one could imagine a scenario in which she was given a limited amount of time to remain as a partner beyond age 70, and perhaps that time is now running out.

As we’ve discussed and debated in these pages, mandatory retirement policies have their advantages and disadvantages. On the negative side, firms lose great older lawyers as a result of them; over the years, as a result of its retirement policy, Skadden has lost such stars as bankruptcy guru D.J. “Jan” Baker (to Latham & Watkins) and celebrated trial lawyer Bob Bennett (to Hogan Lovells). On the positive side, mandatory retirement policies allow for new blood in the partnership. This is why Steven Harper, the former Kirkland & Ellis partner and author of The Lawyer Bubble (affiliate link), believes they are a good thing.

We reached out yesterday for comment to Quinn, Skadden, Birnbaum, and Cheffo. Nobody got back to us, but if and when someone does, we’ll update this post. It is possible that the move could fall through at the last minute, as high-profile hires sometimes do (e.g., if the firm about to lose the lawyers offers a better deal to keep them). As of this writing, the bios of Birnbaum and Cheffo remain on the Skadden website, indicating that their departures are not yet official.

UPDATE (2:45 p.m.): After this story was published, we emailed congratulations to Birnbaum and Cheffo; both sent thank-you notes in response. You can read additional coverage of their move at Thomson Reuters (by Casey Sullivan) and the ABA Journal (by Debra Cassens Weiss).

Assuming the moves take place as planned, congratulations to Birnbaum and Cheffo on the move, and congratulations to Quinn Emanuel on its latest hiring coup. Assuming they aren’t overexpanding (oh hai Finley Kumble) or overpaying for their talent (oh hai New York Yankees), John Quinn and his firm are assembling an all-star roster for the ages.

UPDATE (10:30 a.m.): We have confirmation from Skadden. Flip to the next page to read the firm’s internal memo, authored by Bruce Goldner.

UPDATE (11:30 p.m.): Also on the next page: Quinn Emanuel’s official press release.

(hidden for your protection)

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