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Curt Flood never practiced law, but in a way, his story was a harbinger for the modern large-firm partner. More than 35 years ago, Flood, then an outfielder for the St. Louis Cardinals, declined to be part of a trade that would have sent him to Philadelphia. He wanted the freedom to pick his employer. With that bold move, a new era of free agency was born. No longer would baseball players have to stay with one team for an entire career. It’s taken law firms a bit longer to get to that stage, but these days it’s rare for a lawyer to stay with one firm over the course of his career. Partners, now more than ever, are making themselves free agents and switching firms. And just as a sports fan may decry a perceived lack of loyalty on the part of today’s athlete, similar gripes can be heard coming from the firms that train and invest in longtime lawyers only to watch them walk away at the peak of their earning power. “There’s no question that firms in D.C. have seen more lateral movement between partners,” says Lisa Smith, a consultant at Hildebrandt International. The movement, managing partners and recruiters say, is spurred by firms’ desire to grow. As clients increasingly expect to get all their legal services from just one firm, law firms are working hard to add lawyers to meet those demands when they don’t have an in-house solution. Firms such as Crowell & Moring and Hogan & Hartson have responded to an increasingly competitive market by stepping up efforts to attract lateral partners. At the same time, managing partners such as Roger Warin of Steptoe & Johnson say the task isn’t as easy as hiring laterally in other businesses, because law firms pride themselves on having a distinct culture. “The law has been one of the slower industries to emulate other corporate business models,” says Warin. “But there’s no question that firms are doing more to attract top talent.” It’s what is known in other industries as the war for talent. And it’s captured the D.C. legal market full force. Firms here are beginning to embrace lateral hires at an unprecedented rate. According to a study released by the Association for Career Legal Professionals, lateral hiring rose by more than 50 percent in 2005 among firms in the Washington area. Twenty-two years ago, when Michael Lockerby first joined Hunton & Williams, he figured he would stay with the firm for life, especially after he made partner. But when Foley & Lardner made him an offer last year, Lockerby moved his family and his litigation practice from Richmond, Va., to Washington, D.C. “They were completely prepared for me,” says Lockerby. “It wasn’t nearly as traumatic as I thought it might be.” Lockerby says the firm introduced him to clients and attorneys and tried to ensure he felt like he’d been there 10 years, not 10 minutes. “Anyone that moves has two parts to focus on: business and emotional,” says James Martin, Howrey’s chief recruiting officer. “We have retreats, dinners, and a number of informal get-togethers set up to help new partners establish relationships with their co-workers. It’s important things work out. You can’t be wrong on this.”
Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld 18 14
Arnold & Porter 8 4
Covington & Burling 7 6
Crowell & Moring 6 20
Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher 4 2
Hogan & Hartson 15 20
Wiley Rein & Fielding 5 4
WilmerHale 16 3

That’s why all involved say the extended flirtation isn’t casual. “It’s a gamble,” says Martin, “one that can be mitigated by doing homework and making phone calls.” More than a dozen D.C.-area firms interviewed for this article say that in the past few years, they hired new lateral partners in about the same numbers they promoted lawyers within the firm to partner. Still, lateral partner recruitment fluctuates from firm to firm. Some firms say they see lateral hiring as an integral part of their business strategy and rely heavily on recruiting; others, like Williams & Connolly, simply refuse to bring in a partner who hasn’t first been groomed for the firm through the associate track. Bringing in laterals is “a conscious decision — as conscious as there can be — because our culture and collegiality is so very important to us,” says Richard Racine, managing partner of Finnegan, Henderson, Farabow, Garrett & Dunner’s D.C. office. The firm has not added laterals as quickly as other area firms. In fact, the firm added no lateral partners last year. “We like growing from within. We want to keep the core culture that we started 40 years ago.” That seems to be the general theme coming from most D.C.-area firms: wanting to grow, but — to extend the baseball metaphor — not to swing at every pitch. “In our first 60 years we brought in six lateral partners,” says Timothy Hester, recruiting partner at Covington & Burling. “Since 1999 we’ve done it more systematically. We usually bring in somewhere in the range of two to five laterals a year. It’s not a huge number, but it’s a steady process of adding.” “Promoting associates to partner is the core way we grow,” says Hester. “But we recruit lateral partners to address needs or specific holes that we have that we don’t think we can address in a reasonable time frame.” For Covington, early success in bringing on laterals made the firm feel comfortable with the prospect of continuing to fill senior positions with outside talent. “Partners didn’t feel that we were detracting from the cohesiveness of the partnership,” says Hester. “But to bring in someone laterally, there still needs to be a business need.” Even for the D.C. firms that have had positive experiences bringing in lateral partners, the process still raises concerns about loyalty and fitting into firm culture. “I do want to know why a person wants to leave and join my firm, because, almost as much as anything else, I value continuity,” says Richard Wiley, managing partner at Wiley Rein & Fielding. “I want to know if they’re leaving just for more dollars. We’ve seen some r�sum�s with four or five firms on them, and you really have to wonder about that.” But at the same time, many agree that moving to another firm is no longer considered taboo. “There’s certainly not a stigma anymore that comes with leaving a firm,” says Donald Workman, a partner at Baker Hostetler who left Foley & Lardner after more than a decade. Just how firms go about finding lateral partners varies. Some firms have established an office with a nonlawyer hired to coordinate recruiting; others leave it to partners who work with the heads of individual practices. “We’re constantly trying to find people to bring in,” says Steptoe’s Warin. “But with all the energy we put into looking, the washout rate is fairly high.” As a result, firms tend to spend far more resources and time on research and recruiting than on actually bringing in a new hire. Warin estimates that for every four lawyers who are approached and discuss a possible transfer, only one makes the move. “It takes a lot of time,” says Stephanie Tsacoumis, co-partner in charge of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher’s D.C. office. “We end up talking to a lot of people [for whom] for one reason or another, things don’t materialize. . . . But we always have our eyes on the best and brightest.” From the lawyers’ point of view, a move can be equally exhausting. For Karen Manos, a partner at Gibson, Dunn, the decision to move her practice from Howrey was one she never expected to have to face. But despite concerns with losing 11 years of professional and personal relationships — and after a year of interviews with Gibson, Dunn attorneys — she made the move. But all the preliminary work seems to have paid off. “What surprised me most was all the social interaction the firm set up,” says Manos. “They had a dinner for me. Then the woman partners had a dinner. And then we had a wine tasting.” Facilitating all the lateral movement are outside recruiters, managing partners say, who have helped make lateral hires more common. “They provide a very important service by putting a willing buyer and a willing seller together,” says Wiley. And because recruiters know a lucrative commission can be had, the sales pitches don’t end once a lawyer makes partner. “What surprised me was, I continued getting calls after being here for two weeks,” says Thomas Poche, who in 2006 moved laterally to Cooley Godward Kronish from Connolly Bove Lodge & Hutz. “If you have any track record, the headhunters will be poking at you.” And yet, for all the lateral success many lawyers are having, there’s always the cautionary tale of the one that didn’t work out. In November, partner Brian O’Shaughnessy left Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney for Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice. Press releases were sent out. But three days after he was supposed to start at Womble, O’Shaughnessy apparently decided he wanted to stay put at Buchanan. Since no one’s talking, it’s hard to say exactly what went wrong. But surely, it seems, someone got cold feet. For all the talk of culture and firms as family, there apparently is something to be said for being able to go home again.

Nathan Carlile can be contacted at [email protected].

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