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Boston — Law firms that have planted roots in Boston over the past several years and expanded mostly through lateral hiring are struggling to expand their ranks in a fiercely competitive field of national and international firms. Hiring lateral partners is taxing, say managing partners, with some facing empty offices and others reporting courtships of prospective hires lasting up to two years. Recruiters say signing bonuses are a sign of more firms tussling for scarce talent. In another sign of the scarcity of lateral partners, two of the newest national firms to enter Boston have mustered tiny Boston outposts. Philadelphia-based Pepper Hamilton rented space for 11 attorneys this fall, but the firm opened in November with one lawyer, of counsel Leonard Schneidman from Foley Hoag in Boston. “It’s a matter of fit, and in many cases, it’s a matter of timing,” said Pepper Hamilton executive partner Robert E. Heideck. The firm hopes to fill the space sometime in 2007, he said. Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal started a Boston office in the fall of 2005 with a single lawyer who joined when the pending merger of Palmer & Dodge and Edwards & Angell created client conflicts. The firm, which now has a different partner and one associate in Boston, calls Boston a “facility” and doesn’t list the location on its Web site. Sonnenschein’s lateral acquisition partner Kara Baysinger, who practices in San Francisco, acknowledged that the Boston market is competitive, but said the firm is still evaluating how it wants to use its Boston office. “It’s a matter of deciding what we want strategically, what we want to put there,” Baysinger said. Impatient with pace DLA Piper has fared better with four new lateral Boston partners hired this year, but the Boston office’s managing partner Elliot Surkin is impatient with the pace of the firm’s growth in that city. DLA Piper has nearly doubled since the real estate group broke away from now-defunct Hill & Barlow about four years ago, but Surkin said that the firm would like Boston’s head count to increase from its current total of 56 attorneys to the 125-lawyer mark. “Firms that are not headquartered in Boston or one of the old traditional firms in Boston are still in the process of an uphill climb to become known and established in the market,” Surkin said.Philadelphia-based Duane Morris hasn’t signed on any partners this year despite “constantly looking,” reported Boston managing partner Martin Shulkin. The firm would like to expand its Boston office from 30 to 75 attorneys, he said. “There are a number of key markets the larger firms are all gravitating to,” Shulkin said. “All of that is creating a lot of competition for partners and a lot of mobility.”The national growth of “Boston native” firms such as Goodwin Procter, Ropes & Gray and Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr, which have expanded their national reach in the last couple of years, has also heightened the competition for lateral partners, Shulkin said.Wolf Block Schorr and Solis-Cohen opened its Boston office in the spring of 2005, but it has added only associates this year, said Boston managing partner Robert Crowe. The Philadelphia-based firm has four Boston partners and a half dozen associates.”We knew it would take a couple of years to get moving,” Crowe said. “There’s a lot of competition out there so it’s challenging. Everyone wants to do the same thing.”Patience worksBeing patient with potential hires and keeping the lines of communication open, in some cases for up to two years, has been the key to Greenberg Traurig’s growth from “zero to 80″ in its seven years in Boston, said the co-managing shareholder of the firm’s Boston office Gary Greenberg.”It’s difficult when someone has been at a firm for a couple of decades,” Greenberg said. “They may think they want to move but they may not be sure. You need to work with them.”Large firms are generally looking for $1 million in portable billings, and some are willing to pay signing bonuses starting at the $50,000 mark, said recruiter Michael Sullivan, president of Boston’s Sullivan Consulting Group Inc. Recruiter Mark Kwatcher, of Boston’s Kwatcher Legal Placement, said he has seen bonuses as high as $100,000 and $150,000.”Some firms will take the mentality of we’ll do what it takes,” Kwatcher said.

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