Thelen is said to still be in merger discussions with Nixon Peabody. But if a merger hunt comes to naught -- or if lawyers don't stick around to find out -- there would appear to be no shortage of takers for those with business. Despite the departure of almost 200 lawyers since its 2006 merger -- the latest just this week -- Thelen still has several choice rainmakers among its California ranks, according to former lawyers, recruiters and competitors interviewed for this story.
Bingham McCutchen plans to announce on Monday that four D.C. attorneys from Thelen are moving over: Partner Carl Valenstein -- recently listed on Thelen's Web site as a member of the firm's partnership council -- as well as partners Jerome Akman and David Vidal-Cordero, and senior counsel Rebecca Hartley.
When San Francisco's Thelen Reid & Priest merged in late 2006 with New York's Brown Raysman Millstein Felder & Steiner, the combined firm boasted it would have 630 lawyers. Its Web site now lists about 435.
Though competing firms didn't call out particular Thelen lawyers, about 10 California partners were mentioned frequently as valuable rainmakers in recent conversations with about half a dozen recruiters and people formerly with Thelen.
"We're watching Thelen very closely," said Richard Holderness, a Seyfarth Shaw partner in San Francisco. His firm is expanding its construction law client and attorney base, and most of that expansion is planned for the West Coast, where the firm has about a dozen construction lawyers. "They have a lot of construction lawyers and a lot of attractive construction clients."
Thelen is probably best-known for its construction practice, which Chambers USA lauds as having a sterling national and international reputation. But observers also pointed to labor and employment and commercial litigation lawyers, and some others.
In the San Francisco office, construction law partners David Buoncristiani and John Heisse are headliners.
Buoncristiani, who is listed as a top-level construction law attorney by Chambers USA, carries a book that sources estimated at north of $5 million. Buoncristiani is known for representing Bechtel Corp. and other large construction clients.
"He'd be a huge catch," said one legal recruiter, who asked not to be named. "It's been rumored that his book has approached $10 million. ... His name value alone could be very, very valuable, especially to a firm that is trying to establish a construction practice."
Estimates of Heisse's business varied, ranging from $2 million to $5 million. (Buoncristiani did not return a call Thursday, and Heisse declined to discuss his book of business.)
Also in San Francisco, sources called out commercial litigation partners Robert Pringle and commercial litigation co-chair Jennifer Kuenster.
Pringle, with a book variously estimated from $5 million to $10 million, is known for complex antitrust work, and is said to represent clients such as Samsung and NEC Electronics.
Kuenster focuses primarily on torts and insurance litigation, according to her online biography. Shell Oil Co., General Motors Corp. and Ford Motor Co. have been among her clients, sources said, estimating her book of business in a wide range between $3 million and $10 million.
Sources interviewed for this story said that labor and employment Chairwoman Linda Husar and office managing partner Thomas Hill in Los Angeles, and partners Robert Dolinko and Michael Hallerud in San Francisco, would be worth a look.
Husar and Hill are said to split a book worth between $5 million to $10 million, with Kaiser Foundation Health Plan as a client. Neither of them returned a call Thursday.
Sources speculated that Hallerud has a book of business in the $3 million to $5 million range.
Although Thelen's project finance practice lost group head Mark Weitzel and three other partners to Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe this summer, sources say Thelen partner Ellen Bastier would still be a catch. Sources said Bastier has represented Vestas Wind Co. Estimates of her book varied, but were more than $5 million.
Another legal recruiter said that because of Thelen's partner billing rates, the labor and employment practice would probably not be compatible with firms such as Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker, or Morgan, Lewis & Bockius. Thelen's practice would be more akin to those at labor and employment firms Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart or Littler Mendelson, the recruiter added. (An East Coast group of Thelen lawyers moved over to labor and employment firm Littler Mendelson earlier this year.) "Thelen's partner rates are in the $500s rather than in the $600s and $700s," the recruiter said. The same goes for Thelen's commercial litigation practice, which might be most compatible with firms like Howrey; Ropes & Gray; or Jones Day.
Two other partners who also got mentions were San Jose litigator and IP lawyer Kenneth Nissly and environmental and energy lawyer Gregory O'Hara.
A Thelen spokesman declined to comment on partners or their books of business for this story.
Sedgwick, Detert, Moran & Arnold, with about 400 lawyers, and Florida-based Akerman Senterfitt, with about 500 lawyers, are among firms looking to expand their construction practices. David Dapper, a Los Angeles-based partner at Akerman who is aware of some of Thelen's losses, said that "if opportunities were to arise, we would have some interest in having discussions with them."
Still, it's not clear how mutual the interest would be.
Two Thelen partners made a point of showing solidarity with their firm Thursday afternoon.
Hallerud said that he's been with Thelen for more than 13 years and has "no interest in going anywhere," adding that the San Francisco office is "a family place."
Another partner, Heisse, replied in an e-mail: "As I have told what seems to be every headhunter in the continental U.S., I have no intention of taking my practice to any other firm. If your article has the effect of stopping their calls, then I appreciate your help."
Niraj Chokshi contributed to this report.