Citing the difficulty of serving individual clients within a large, corporate-focused law firm, a four-lawyer trusts and estates team has left Morrison & Foerster for San Francisco boutique Shartsis Friese.
Patrick McCabe, who led the group in its move from MoFo, said Thursday that unlike Am Law 100 firms that have made the strategic decision to eliminate their trusts and estates practices, his former firm didn’t push his team out. Instead, the departures are the product of a two-year process he and his colleagues undertook to determine the future of their practice.
“Initially we thought about bringing in someone with a similar vintage to me,” says McCabe, 47, who was the only partner in MoFo’s trusts, estates, and non-profit organizations group. “What became evident is that most of my colleagues in this area were already at medium-sized firms to smaller firms.”
A Morrison & Foerster spokeswoman directed questions about the departures to firmwide managing partner Craig Martin, who was traveling to the firm’s partnership retreat Thursday and unavailable for an interview. In a statement, Martin said: “They have been wonderful colleagues and we wish them the best.”
McCabe says most of his clients have personal holdings totaling at least $5 million and that many have “substantially more than that.” In addition to advising those clients on estate-planning matters, he says, “We act as the family lawyer, looking holistically at their businesses, real estate, any range of things people who have wealth get engaged in.”
Until the move to Shartsis Friese—a 60-lawyer firm founded in 1975 by Arthur Shartsis, who was previously a MoFo associate, and SEC lawyer Robert Friese—McCabe had spent his entire career in Morrison & Foerster’s trusts and estate practice under the tutelage of Richard Kinyon, most recently a senior counsel at the firm who is also joining Shartsis Friese as a partner. Former MoFo of counsel April Hopkins Rox and former MoFo associate Danielle Zaragoza, meanwhile, are taking on of counsel roles.
Shartsis himself characterizes the hires as a byproduct of the continuing evolution of Am Law 100 firms. “The very big successful firms that are striving for and achieving multinational status continue to try to drive their billing rates and project size bigger and bigger,” he says. “Over time [they are] inadvertently phasing out very skilled lawyers who have practices that don’t command those huge rates.”
Shartsis Friese partners typically bill between $600 and $800 an hour, Shartsis says, with a few commanding higher rates (McCabe says his team can charge 15-20 percent less at the smaller firm). Over the past two years, the firm has also gained three real estate lawyers from Morrison & Foerster whose leasing practices Shartsis describes as being “imperiled” by MoFo’s rates.
The additions create a readymade trusts and estates practice for Shartsis Friese, which already has established groups in litigation, corporate, real estate, and private equity work, among other areas.
“They are just superb lawyers who fit our model of elite practices,” Shartsis says of the new hires. “The bigger story is that for all the discussions of lawyers seeking the larger platform, some need a smaller platform.”
Many large law firm have been scaling back private client work or cutting such practices completely for more than a decade. One of the more recent moves came in February, when Debevoise & Plimpton made news when The New York Times reported that the firm had asked its private client team to leave. A month later, the group landed at Loeb & Loeb, which has benefited as the result of several firms shedding trusts and estates lawyers.
Other firms that have downsized what are sometimes known as wealth management practices in recent years include Paul Hastings; Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr; Weil, Gotshal & Manges; and Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati.