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Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman has been dogged by inconsistent growth, sluggish profits and controversial mergers in recent years � and the question keeps being asked, can the firm turn its fortunes around? The first answers came last month as Pillsbury reported robust double-digit growth in profit per equity partner and revenue per lawyer for 2006. But naysayers counter that the numbers are a mirage � functions of the precipitous drop in head count last year that left the firm 111 lawyers and 37 partners lighter. James Rishwain, elected to succeed Mary Cranston in the spring and formally named chairman Jan. 1, says today’s Pillsbury is a tighter ship with steady growth on the horizon � including hitting the million-dollar PPP mark in 2008. “We believe we are well-positioned to reach this goal as we focus on productivity and streamlining processes,” Rishwain said by e-mail last week. At the same time, the firm seems to have streamlined its ambitions, going from Cranston’s merger-driven global rhetoric to talk of supporting current practice groups and meeting existing client needs. While world conquest is off the agenda, the firm closed 2006 looking good by one hotly watched measure: Profits per equity partner shot up 14 percent to $875,000. Some observers � including partners who left last year � call that a departure-fueled fluke that can’t mask the ill health of a firm that lost some major rainmakers. Other observers say this is the time for the firm to show that its problems are in the past and it is still able to compete. “This is a real important year for the firm,” said San Francisco recruiter Peter Smith of BCG Attorney Search. “It’s a huge opportunity for them to stay in the premier tier.” FOCUSING AMBITIONS Cranston stepped down following a bold and controversial eight-year run that saw Pillsbury involved in two major mergers. In 2001 the firm combined with New York’s Winthrop, Stimson, Putnam & Roberts, and in 2005 merged with D.C.’s Shaw Pittman. Along the way Pillsbury transformed itself from a California firm with a handful of East Coast and overseas offices, to a 15-office international firm, the most recent addition being a Shanghai office that opened last fall. Since the Shaw Pittman merger, however, the firm has been shrinking rapidly. When the two firms combined, they boasted 1,050 lawyers. Cranston had forecast that some attrition was likely but predicted 900 lawyers would be a “safe floor” for head count. Today, it stands at 751. The smaller firm has smaller ambitions. Rishwain said Pillsbury is now looking to revitalize its existing practices rather than leap to the next stage through accelerated growth. “We are not contemplating any merger at this time,” Rishwain said. “For now and the foreseeable future we are focused on reaching the goals outlined in our strategic plan.” Richard Gary, a law firm consultant with Gary Advisors, applauded the firm for not looking to a merger to solve its problems. “I think that means they are looking internally for solutions rather than externally, and, in my mind, that’s a very healthy approach for any firm to take,” he said. Rishwain said Pillsbury would continue to hire associates and partners to support its practices � especially focusing on the firm’s energy, financial services, real estate and technology groups. He wants to position the firm’s lawyers “as thought leaders on emerging business and legal issues.” As one possible example, the firm has handled its share of investigations into stock option backdating. But the firm does not “plan on growing for the sake of growth.” The business mantra about doing more with less comes to mind as Rishwain praises the smaller Pillsbury.
Doing More With Less

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