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For most of the country’s leading law firms, Chicago has never been the Second City. The highest-grossing firms on the coasts have expanded into each other’s cities, but few have settled in Chicago. It’s as if the city’s landmark steel-and-stone skyscrapers contain law firms that are as unshakable as the buildings themselves: Kirkland & Ellis; Winston & Strawn; Sidley Austin Brown & Wood. “Historically, the perception was that this was a closed community that was very well served by very good firms,” said Neal Wolf, a partner at Winston & Strawn during the 1990s. Wolf is back in the city after six years in San Francisco, where he joined an office of New York-based LeBoeuf, Lamb, Greene & MacRae. In February, he opened a Chicago office for LeBoeuf. “I have Lake Michigan behind me right now,” said Wolf from his desk. “I’m a Chicago-boy man. The city, it runs in my blood.” As it happens, Wolf’s own business plan relies on the decline of such nativist sentiment. LeBoeuf and other newcomers are betting that Chicago firms no longer hold a lock on the city’s legal work. “The community is opening up,” Wolf said. “Clients are diversifying in the legal providers they hire. And there’s a huge amount of mobility within the legal community.” Steady migration LeBoeuf is just one of 13 large firms to open or greatly expand offices in the city since the start of 2001. These include (in reverse chronological order) Drinker Biddle & Reath; Dykema Gossett; Morgan, Lewis & Bockius; Perkins Coie; McGuireWoods; Barnes & Thornburg; Greenberg Traurig; Holland & Knight; Bryan Cave; Howrey; Kaye Scholer; and Foley & Lardner. Expect more arrivals. “You’re going to see some major Boston and Washington firms coming to Chicago in the next year or two,” said Joel Henning, a Chicago-based consultant for Hildebrandt International Inc. Many of the newcomers see Chicago as a strategic necessity. As clients consolidate their work and reduce their rosters of outside counsel, firms hope to be seen as genuinely national. “We want to be in the major business markets,” said Wolf. Given that thinking, Chicago-the Midwest’s economic capital, with the nation’s third-largest metropolitan work force-has been a glaring omission. The newcomers hold high hopes for Chicago because so few competitors have preceded them. Eighty-four of the top 100 U.S. firms keep offices in New York. But only 27 have offices in Chicago-including 10 native firms and the 13 newcomers.

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