Partner Issues

Are the pastures greener over at Freshfields?

In case you haven’t noticed, Freshfields has been on a U.S. hiring spree lately. The Magic Circle firm has been making partners disappear from other firms left and right. It recently lured Peter Lyons away from Shearman & Sterling, his longtime professional home. That came on the heels of Freshfields picking up former Wachtell Lipton partner Mitchell Presser and former Skadden Arps partner James Douglas.

Today brings word of more high-profile hires. We’ve learned that three Fried Frank partners — former co-chair Valerie Ford Jacob and two other capital-markets partners, Paul Tropp and Michael Levitt — are decamping for Freshfields. Their bios are all gone from the Fried Frank website. One source of ours called it “a major loss for the firm.”

Is something going on at Fried Frank? It seems the firm has lost a lot of partners lately….

(Please note the UPDATES added to this post, including comment from Fried Frank.)

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Michael Allen

Ed. note: This is the latest installment in a series of posts Lateral Link’s team of expert contributors. Michael Allen is Managing Principal at Lateral Link, focusing exclusively on partner placements with Am Law 200 clients.

The stories about Biglaw over the past five years have been grim, but a closer inspection shows that despite a cacophony of daily doomsday stories from The New Republic, the Wisconsin Law Review, The Atlantic and other publications of varying quality, the future of Biglaw looks promising.

The size of modern-day, Am Law 100 firms allows them to downsize or expand as the market conditions dictate, but as a profession of perception, firms have to handle RIFs with care. Partners and clients might go next door if they doubt the capabilities of the firm. I have worked with partners before who moved simply because the perception of their firm’s stability was questioned by their clients….

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Bruce Stachenfeld

This is a continuation of the article I published in ATL two weeks ago. My previous article gave my view that the profitability metric of “Profits Per Partner” becomes in effect a master (rather than a servant) and is destructive and a root cause of some serious problems for Biglaw. In this article, I put forth a different way of doing business.

A long time ago, we at Duval & Stachenfeld decided that we would not make partnership decisions in our law firm based on a “numbers game.” Instead, we would look at the quality of the associates, and if they were qualified, we would make them partners irrespective of the effect that had on our firm economics. We have stuck to that view rigorously.

Over time we came to some realizations:

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Everybody in the Canadian legal profession knows that international firms Baker & McKenzie, Norton Rose and Dentons have set up shop in Canada. Baker & McKenzie has actually been in Toronto since 1962. Norton Rose absorbed the venerable Ogilvy Renault in 2011 before conquering the west by merging with energy powerhouse MacLeod Dixon in 2012. Dentons made its Canadian play in 2013 by merging with another long-established firm, Fraser Milner.

But how many people realize that there are several other prominent U.S./international firms working somewhat under the radar in the Canadian market? Powerhouses like Paul Weiss, Shearman & Sterling and Skadden Arps all have small Canadian offices where they service mostly American clients. Similarly, Dorsey & Whitney, Hodgson Russ, Dickinson Wright, Fragomen, and Clyde and Co. all have small Canadian presences.

By my count, that’s eleven U.S./international firms that have a real footprint in Canada, which leads to this question: why aren’t there more? Canada is a G8 nation with a strong economy. Our citizens are warm and friendly. We wear deodorant. Why have you forsaken us, international law firms?

Here’s what I dug up:

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There’s no Biglaw intercity rivalry that can match the one between London’s venerable Magic Circle and New York’s elite white-shoe firms. Both groups of firms are the clear alpha dogs in their markets, attracting the top talent and most lucrative clients.

There are, however, some significant differences between the two groups in how they operate. For example, U.K. firms tend to follow a lockstep (rather than “eat what you kill”) compensation model. Last month, friend of ATL Bruce MacEwen took a deep dive into the relative performance over the last several years of the Magic Circle firms versus their New York cousins. The piece is highly recommended: it’s chock-full of data, and its findings suggest the groups are moving in different directions….

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A former colleague told me he spent the first few years of his career as a “soldier” for one of the powerful partners at his firm, and was ultimately driven to jump laterally at least in part to get out from under the guy’s thumb. It turns out the use of the word “soldier” wasn’t strictly a military allusion, meant [semi-] humorously to connote mindless devotion, but was actually intended more in the Sopranos vein. Or so it seemed to me anyway. Note I’ve also cast an aspersion on fraternities here, unapologetically…

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Last year, St. Martin’s Press published The Partner Track, the debut novel of lawyer Helen Wan. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, I praised the book for being engaging, suspenseful, and — unlike so many legal novels — realistic. The paperback edition of The Partner Track became available last week.

I enjoy fiction about lawyers, as both a reader and writer — my own first novel comes out in a few weeks — and I’m deeply interested in how other writers work. So I interviewed Helen Wan about her book, her approach to writing, and how she managed to write a novel while holding down a demanding job as an in-house lawyer for Time Warner. I also asked for her advice on how women and minority lawyers can succeed in Biglaw.

Here’s a (lightly edited and condensed) write-up of our conversation.

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We all dream of a world in which collegiality matters.

Partners at law firms are . . . well . . . partners. They look out for each other. They build each other’s practices. They work for the common good.

Perhaps that firm exists. I wouldn’t know.

From my perch here — as the guy who left a Biglaw partnership for an in-house job, and on whose shoulder other Biglaw partners now routinely cry — the view is pretty ugly. (Perhaps my perspective is distorted because of an obvious bias: Partners happy with their firms don’t come wailing to me.) What I hear these days is grim: Guys are being de-equitized or made of counsel; they think they’re being underpaid; they’re concerned that they’ll be thrown under the bus if they ever lose a step.

Several recent partners’ laments prompted me to think about something that I’d never considered when I worked at a firm. (Maybe that’s because I’m one of those guys who was perfectly happy laboring for the common good. Or maybe it’s because I’m a moron.)

In any event, here’s today’s question: I want to wrestle effectively with my own law firm. I don’t want to be nasty; I just want to be sure that I have implicit power when I negotiate with the firm. I want the firm — of its own accord, without me saying a word — to treat me right. How do I wrestle my own law firm to the ground? How do I pin my partners?

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She doesn’t needed to be educated about rap music.

* “Operas can get pretty gory. I should have put that in my brief.” In the upcoming Supreme Court term, it looks like law clerks will have to educate their justices about the intricacies of rap music’s sometimes violent lyrics. [National Law Journal]

* The pay gap between equity and non-equity Biglaw partners is growing wider and wider. According to recent survey, on average, equity partners are bringing home $633K more than non-equity partners each year. [Am Law Daily]

* Hackers are targeting Biglaw firms to acquire their clients’ important secrets. Unfortunately, no one is brave enough to step up to the plate and say their firm’s been hit — admitting that “could be an extinction-level event.” [Tribune-Review]

* Which Biglaw firms had the most satisfied summer associates this year? There was a big rankings shake-up at the top of the list this time around, and we’ll have more on this later today. [Am Law Daily]

* In the wake of the Ray Rice scandal, Adrian Peterson screwed up many of your fantasy football teams after he was indicted for hurting his child “with criminal negligence.” He’s now out on $15,000 bail. [CNN]

Size matters, and to be successful today you really have to be in that Am Law 50.

Alan Levin, managing partner of Edwards Wildman, commenting on the importance of being viewed as a “tier 1″ law firm in the overall Biglaw hierarchy. Levin identified possible merger partners by commissioning a study to separate firms into “tier 1″ and “tier 2″ groupings. Locke Lord was considered a “tier 1″ firm, and Levin will become vice chair of Locke Lord Edwards if the merger goes through.

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