Howrey Chief Executive Robert Ruyak was impressed with the development talents and practice skills of former Thelen Chairman Stephen O'Neal despite the fact that his former firm died. "If you give up your practice, it's of little value to the new firm," Ruyak said. After Thelen voted to dissolve last year, O'Neal jumped to Howrey. O'Neal did not respond to requests for an interview.
Howrey had eyed O'Neal's group in 2007 to help fill out its energy technology practice with a construction litigation group. As troubles within Thelen's other practices mounted last year, Ruyak took the opportunity to bring O'Neal and other attorneys to Howrey. That O'Neal was coming from a failing firm was not a problem, but actually worked in Howrey's favor, Ruyak said. "I looked at is as an opportunity," he said. "I realized that what we had was a very strong practice in a firm that was not doing well."
Although a bulging book is the most attractive recruiting asset, it is difficult to draw broad conclusions about the marketability of former firm leaders, said Jon Lindsey, managing partner in the New York office of Major Lindsey & Africa, a lawyer placement firm. Factors such as a potential lateral's area of practice, his or her role in a firm's demise, the economy's part in the failure and a leader's conduct once a firm is in trouble all make a difference. And even if a former leader lacks a book of business, many can still find a new home, he said.
"If you want a general to lead your army, you want someone who's been through the battle," Lindsey said. "You want people who won't panic the first time a bullet whizzes by their head."
The ability to spearhead expansion recently brought Tower Snow Jr. to Howard Rice Nemerovski Canady Falk & Rabkin.
He joined the San Francisco law firm, which has about 100 attorneys, in March as a director in its litigation department and is focusing on boosting that practice.
In 1998, Snow took the helm of Brobeck, Phleger & Harrison, which soared to an attorney count of 900 during the technology boom. But rapid expansion and the dot-com bust brought on hard times. Brobeck expelled Snow in May 2002 as he was being courted by Clifford Chance. Brobeck collapsed about six months later. Snow would end up leading a West Coast initiative for Clifford Chance. The law firm closed its California operation in 2007.
Snow worked as a consultant after leaving Clifford Chance and is re-entering law firm life now that his daughter, 10, is older, said Snow, who is a single father. His new job is a way to "write a different last chapter," he said. "I worked hard for many years. The events at Brobeck and Clifford Chance were a very disappointing way to end my career. Anyone who has worked as long as I had worked doesn't want to close the book with that kind of an ending."
Finding a firm with the right fit took some effort, he said. "For some, having someone of my seniority with my background was more than they wanted to undertake."
Snow said that he brings three things to the table: sound lawyering skills, an ability to develop business and a desire to "build something." He said that many in the industry view him as an authoritarian leader, an assessment he rejects. "I just want to be judged on what I do."
He talked to several Am Law 100 firms about a position, he said, but those based in Los Angeles and New York were not a good match. Instead, he wanted to help develop business in northern California. Howard Rice had a collaborative culture and a business strategy that suited him. Snow spent the first three months at re-establishing contacts on his 3,500-person list. "I have an enormous number of friends," he said. "I've been doing this for 40 years."
Former Thacher Proffitt & Wood litigation chairman Richard Hans also had friends when he went looking for a new job. After his former firm closed in December, he went back to familiar territory at DLA Piper, where he had practiced until 2006. He had the benefit of having maintained his own practice while leading Thacher's litigation group.
Hans practiced at DLA Piper for six years before moving to Thacher, where he served as the litigation chairman for a year before the firm closed. He rejoined DLA Piper in December.
"At 47, I really didn't want to prove myself all over again," he said. "Not only was it a good fit, but it was comfortable."
He said that DLA Piper is "generously compensating" him, that he is earning more than he was as Thacher was declining and that he has "incentive targets" to meet at his new post.
Even so, Hans said, he's had to be careful about integrating back into DLA Piper, especially since he became chairman of the New York office's 100-attorney litigation group just six months after rejoining the law firm. "I wanted to make sure they knew that it wasn't my intention to jump over them," he said. "I learned a lot from my experiences at Thacher. With some humility, I hope to use those lessons to move forward." He was able to maintain his own practice for most of his time at Thacher, but as the firm fell deeper into trouble, Hans, a member of Thacher's planning committee at the time, found more of his schedule devoted to searching for a merger partner. "It was the most difficult time of my professional life."