With the market’s relentless economic pressures, clients and law firms are being forced to adopt new strategies to more effectively evolve with the times. Over the course of the sluggish market, an increasingly-more-attractive option for BigLaw has been the smaller, but still sophisticated and/or specialized firms that afford attorneys more agility and better flexibility.

Some illustrative examples include Andy DeVooght, a former Winston & Strawn partner, refocusing his practice with litigation boutique MoloLamken after serving as an Assistant United States Attorney in Chicago. Carol Payne, a former Vinson & Elkins partner, moved her practice to Estes Okon Thorne & Carr. Boutique firm Murphy & McGonigle spun off of Virginia-based LeClairRyan. Andrew Fishkin and Steven Lucks both broke out of BigLaw to found Fishkin Lucks LLP. These are just a smattering of the transitions that have happened over the last handful of years.

A more recent, and perhaps more dramatic, transition has been that of prominent DC-based real estate attorneys Wendy White and Elizabeth (Betsy) Karmin. White was the head of Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman’s DC real estate group, and also sat on the firm’s managing board. Karmin was a member of DLA Piper’s DC real estate group, and is one of DC’s Legal Elite (as named by SmartCEO magazine), and co-author of D.C.’s State-by-State Guide to Commercial Real Estate Leases.

Leaving their former BigLaw homes to launch the D.C. real estate practice for 250-lawyer, Am Law 200 firm, Morris, Manning & Martin LLP, they gave me a few minutes to discuss their motivations.

Parnell: Could you tell me a bit about your decision to migrate over to Morris, Manning & Martin, LLP?

White: We come from two big law firms with wonderful pedigrees, and we both had fabulous experiences there.  We only have good things to say about them.  We value our training and relationships there, but we were both looking for the opportunity to be a little more entrepreneurial and to grow something of our own.

Real estate at Morris Manning is a third of the firm, and it is a driving force here. Yet, the firm is smaller than both the firms we come from, so we have more flexibility on a lot of things—rates being among them.

Karmin:  [Morris, Manning & Martin] has all of the support and practices that we need, at a very high and sophisticated level that can handle the types of deals we are used to handling. … Clients are being smarter about purchasing legal services. They are looking very hard at what they do and don’t need. Most clients don’t have one lawyer who handles all of their work; most spread their work around. They want very high quality and a high level of service, but they are looking at costs as well.

Parnell: What are some of the pressures facing real estate lawyers in particular, today?

White: I don’t know that it is unique to real estate, but there are incredible time pressures on deals. Sometimes they are real, and sometimes they are manufactured. People say that time kills deals, and often it does. So there are unbelievable time demands, and you need to be able to turn on a dime and throw resources at a deal when it is needed.

… You know, in smaller firms, people wear more hats. In large firms, sometime people tend to get quite specialized. Here, for instance, not only has the IT guy got my computer and phone set up, but he is always asking about how else he can help! I am ready to throw him a piece of a deal to work on! [Laughs]

Karmin: We use the term “smaller firm,” and [Morris, Manning & Martin] is smaller than DLA and Pillsbury. But it is a 250 lawyer firm; we very carefully did not choose a very small firm because we didn’t think that it would have quite the resources and support for the practices that we have. So, it is smaller than where we came from, but I wouldn’t call it a “small” firm.

In a recent interview I did with Andrew Smulian of Akerman LLP, we discussed their Law2023 initiative—a think-tank, of sorts, that is aimed at predicting the trajectory of legal practice over the next 10 years. One of their findings was that we will see a trend toward hyper-specificity in the legal markets. If his predictions come true, I think we will continue to see these shifts—or exoduses, depending on how you view them—from BigLaw to the smaller, more agile and flexible service platforms.


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