Mystery Departures

On Monday, we noted the surprising news of a young partner leaving Wachtell Lipton to start his own boutique firm. Given the rarity of partner departures from the super-lucrative Wachtell, my colleague Staci Zaretsky described the news as “basically like seeing a unicorn.”

Why did Jeremy Goldstein, a 40-year-old partner in the firm’s executive-compensation practice, leave WLRK? The American Lawyer piece about Goldstein’s move painted a happy picture of a lawyer striking out on his own to be more entrepreneurial and to run his own business.

But we wonder if there’s more to this story than meets the eye….

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Yesterday we wrote about a managing partner’s abrupt departure from her firm — a departure that the remaining members of management noted in a somewhat snarky email.

At the time, we didn’t know where she was headed. Now we know her destination — and we can understand why some of her former colleagues might be bent out of shape over her leaving.

Where did this prominent partner land, and what might happen to the firm she left behind?

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Here at Above the Law, we love ourselves a good departure memo. If a great one makes its way into your inbox, please feel free to send our way.

People write departure memos so they can frame their farewells — explain why they’re leaving, provide their new contact information, and thank the people who need to be thanked. But what about if a partner — a managing partner, no less, and one involved in a summer associate scandal from a few years ago — just quits without explanation?

In that case, the remaining members of management write her departure memo for her. And oh what a departure memo….

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This is as close to titillating as I’ll ever get in one of these columns:  When a senior lawyer (or executive) leaves a company in December, what does that mean?

Basically, Ecclesiastes is all about changing jobs:  ”To every thing there is a season.”

When a partner at a law firm moves laterally in January, that’s like leaves changing in autumn.  The partner waited to receive his (or her) year-end bonus from firm A and, having pocketed the bonus, then moved on to firm B.  That makes the lateral acquisition cheaper for the new firm.

The in-house world is a step slower:  When an in-house lawyer (or executive) moves to a new company in March or April, that’s like snow falling in winter.  The in-house person waited to receive his (or her) annual bonus in March (more or less) and, having pocketed the bonus, then moved on.  That reduces the hiring cost for the new company.

But when an in-house lawyer (or executive) leaves a company in December, that’s a blizzard in May!  The game is afoot!  (Blogging is so good for me.  I just learned that Shakespeare said that first, although I was thinking of Sherlock Holmes (who said it later) when I typed the phrase.)  Quickly, Mr. Watson!  What can we deduce from an out-of-season executive departure?

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Last year, we covered the mystery departure of Lee Smolen — the prominent real estate lawyer, not the famed theoretical physicist — from Sidley Austin. It may have been related to the ethics charges filed against Smolen, accusing him of conversion and breach of fiduciary duty through alleged filing of false expense claims.

Amazingly enough, Smolen got picked up as a partner by DLA Piper. The firm admitted that it “was aware of this matter during the hiring process.”

In order to deliver to DLA’s bottom line, Smolen will need to avoid suspension or disbarment. So he has filed a response to the Illinois ethics charges against him. What does Smolen have to say for himself, and is it persuasive?

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Whenever a law dean abruptly retires over the summer, it’s suspicious. When a law dean abruptly retires and our tipsters start screaming that there’s something more going on here, it’s very suspicious.

And when the university responds to the retirement by essentially saying, “there’s nothing to see here, move along,” then it’s time to fire up the Above the Law crowd-sourcing machine…

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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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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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When people leave the Chicago office of Sidley Austin, they do it in style. Remember the humorous departure memo of partner David B. Johnson, who left the firm to pursue a career as a novelist? Or the epic farewell message of associate Tyler Coulson, who left to hike across the country with his dog?

(And write a book about the experience, with a great title: By Men or By the Earth: A Corporate Lawyer Walks Out on Law, Love, and Life, and Walks Across America With His Adopted Dog (affiliate link).)

Today we have news of another lawyer leaving the Chicago office of Sidley. But this departure reads more like a mystery novel than a memoir. Let’s find out who’s leaving, even if we don’t yet know why….

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