Musical Chairs

Last September, we wrote about the mysterious departure of Lee Smolen from Sidley Austin. Smolen, former head of Sidley’s real estate practice in Chicago and a member of the firm’s executive committee, departed without comment or a known destination. When that happens, something interesting is usually afoot.

Earlier this month, the other white shoe dropped. A lawyer ethics commission in Illinois leveled charges against Smolen arising out of his time at Sidley.

What has he been accused of? And what does his new law firm have to say about it?

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It seems that the firm of Patton Boggs is stuck in the mud right now. Back in March, the firm announced significant layoffs of attorneys and staff — possibly the biggest in 2013, at least until this morning’s Weil Gotshal layoffs. Patton Boggs is also feeling some heat over its involvement in the Chevron / Ecuador litigation mess (fifth link).

And now we have news that a sizable number of Patton partners are heading for the exit. How many partners are leaving, and where are they headed?

Please note the UPDATE at the end of this post.

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Over its long and storied history, Davis Polk & Wardwell hasn’t hired many lateral partners. Most of its partners are homegrown, joining the firm right out of law school and spending their entire careers there (like the two most recently promoted partners).

But this has started to change over the past few years, as managing partner Thomas Reid discussed in an August 2011 interview with Am Law Daily. In the August 2010 to August 2011 period, DPW hired a half-dozen prominent lateral partners.

And the lateral hiring spree continues (although not without the occasional snag). Let’s hear about Davis Polk’s latest high-profile hire, a new lateral partner at Paul Hastings, and an addition to the leadership of Orrick….

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Elite law firms and the Mafia would appear to be worlds apart. Biglaw firms represent all sorts of unsavory characters, but these clients tend to steal using computers rather than cudgels. When you wear white shoes, you don’t want to get them splattered with blood.

But there are commonalities. Both Biglaw and Big Crime are large and lucrative enterprises. They’re intensely hierarchical and often ruthless.

There are cultural similarities as well. As noted in these pages by lawyer turned therapist Will Meyerhofer, “Some big law firms are like the mob. They do ugly things, but prefer to avoid ‘ugliness.’” Instead, there’s a lot of indirection and passive-aggressiveness.

So perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising to learn that a leading defense lawyer to Mob figures has joined “the family” — the Biglaw family, that is….

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Summer associates will soon be arriving at large law firms. So, to paraphrase Antoine Dodson, y’all need to hide yo screamers, hide yo sleazebags, and hide yo husband (or yo gun-toting boyfriend).

While summer associates are present, certain subjects are off-limits. Don’t talk about that group of partners with a huge book of business that’s going to defect any day now. Don’t talk about that salacious lawsuit against the firm that’s still pending.

And don’t talk about layoffs — of staffers or lawyers or both. Reductions are such a buzzkill….

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If you have a friend who might be interested in serving as the general counsel to a leading technology company, you might want to give that person a poke. As we mentioned earlier today, a top job is about to open up: Ted Ullyot plans to step down as GC of Facebook in the not-too-distant future.

What types of issues has Ullyot tackled in his time at Facebook? How well has he been compensated in his role? Where might he be headed next?

Let’s look at some SEC filings, as well as his departure memo….

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Ted Ullyot

* Given the name and origins of the Tea Party movement, it actually makes perfect sense that their groups got grief from the IRS. [Washington Post]

* Wachtell Lipton weighs in against the practice of shareholder activists offering special compensation to director nominees. [Dealbook / New York Times]

* A law professor, Joshua Silverstein, argues that schools should embrace grade inflation. (But haven’t most of them done this already?) [WSJ Law Blog]

* Facebook shareholders might not “like” this news, but Ted Ullyot plans to step down as general counsel after about five years. We’ll have more on this later. [Corporate Counsel]

* The Brooklyn DA’s office is reopening 50 murder cases that were worked on by retired detective Louis Scarcella (who looks oh-so-savory in the NYT’s photo of him). [New York Times]

* In news that should shock no one, Nicholas Speath’s dubious discrimination case against Georgetown Law has been dismissed. [The BLT: The Blog of Legal Times]

* Not long after leaving Cravath for Kirkland, Sarkis Jebejian is putting together billion-dollar deals for private-equity clients. [Am Law Daily]

* Professor Jeffrey Rosen reviews an interesting new book, The Federalist Society (affiliate link), authored by Michael Avery and Danielle McLaughlin. [New York Times]

Many fine things can be said about Cleary Gottlieb. It’s prestigious (#8 in the latest Vault rankings). It’s profitable (#10 in the recently released Am Law 100 profit-per-partner rankings). It’s pleasant, known for a nice firm culture.

So what are the downsides of Cleary? Here’s one: the firm might be a bit… boring.

As you can see from our archives, we don’t write that much about Cleary. And when we do, it’s not always exciting stuff — e.g., Cravath-matching bonunses. Yawn.

Well, today we bring you some news about Cleary that might be at least slightly juicy: a mysterious partner departure, and possible stealth layoffs….

UPDATE (2:30 p.m.): Now with an important update, a statement from the partner in question.

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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.)

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As both trial lawyers and journalists well know, there are (easily more than) two sides to every story. The same underlying events can give rise to completely different narratives, depending on whom you talk to.

Is a mother who takes her own life and almost takes that of her child deserving of condemnation or sympathy? Are two law students accused of killing a bird a pair of “sick individuals,” or two basically good guys who just had a bad night?

Yesterday we wrote about Weil Gotshal’s reaction to losing two litigation partners to Quinn Emanuel in D.C. Since our story was published, we’ve heard from multiple sources who vigorously dispute our prior tipsters’ version of events….

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