While Bingham McCutchen is now paying top dollar to hold on to associates at its offices across the country, in San Francisco the firm seems to be paying top dollar so some of them will leave.
Several mid-level and senior litigation associates have taken a buyout deal from the 1,000-lawyer, Boston-based firm, according to multiple sources inside and outside the firm. Four attorneys recently left the firm, and three traded in their full-time associate status for the part-time title of contract attorney, those sources say.
On Tuesday, the firm raised associate salaries in all offices to the $160,000 scale, following crowds of other large firms that have done the same.
Anthony Carbone, chair of the firm's committee on associates, described the personnel moves in San Francisco as "mutually agreeable transitions" initiated by associates based on their individual situations -- not layoffs initiated by the firm.
"Some things take on a life of their own," said Carbone, a partner in New York. "We didn't have any program; it just happened that we had this number of people. We didn't go up to people and say here's something you should take." Carbone declined to comment on the individual deals or identify those who accepted them, but he said that, in general, agreements like these could include a severance payment.
Although Carbone said there was no one factor that precipitated the departures, lawyers inside and outside the firm said that a slowdown in commercial litigation was to blame. One Bingham associate who did not want to be identified, and who did not leave or get reclassified, called it a "creative solution" in "dealing with the ebb and flow of commercial litigation."
David Balabanian, who heads the firm's litigation practice, said the firm's litigators are doing just fine. In San Francisco, litigators are busy with antitrust cases for clients like Intel, commercial fights like the one between Oracle and SAP, and IP cases for clients like Blockbuster in its battle with Netflix, as well as backdating matters, he said.
Balabanian declined to comment on any personnel matters. "The litigation practice is strong. There are ebbs and flows, so that from time to time some parts are in the ebb or the flow, but that's nothing new," he said. "Our commitment to litigation, that it will remain one of the firm's great pillars, is reflected by our hiring targets, which continue unabated, as well as our recent merger."
The firm recently closed a deal to acquire Los Angeles litigation boutique Alschuler Grossman.
Multiple sources say that as litigation work ebbed, the firm made it known that associates thinking of leaving should talk to management individually.
"There was an opportunity for people to leave who wanted to go," said one lawyer familiar with the situation. "They provided some severance."
"Some people decided to do it, and some people decided not to do it," one Bingham associate said.
Though the firm wouldn't say who may have accepted buyouts, four litigation associates have left in the last month. One of them, Tyler Theis, said he was interviewing for in-house jobs, but declined to comment further. The other three -- Renee Dupree, Farschad Farzan and Vibeke Norgaard -- either declined to comment or couldn't be reached for comment.
Three other associates -- Sivan Gai, Todd Pickles and Edward Donnelly -- were recently reclassified on the firm's Web site as part-time contract lawyers. Gai and Pickles declined to comment publicly, and Donnelly didn't return calls.
No one would say how much severance was offered.