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Never mind those annoying associate salaries, all those interest rate hikes, rising office rents, and the first trickle of dot-com bankruptcies; the majority of Washington’s biggest law offices entered the new millennium bigger than ever. And they’re showing no signs of trimming their sails, at least not this year. In fact, the region’s 10 biggest offices are on track to hire nearly 440 new associates this year, up by about one-third from the number they expected to hire last year. Hiring plans range from a staggering 88 new associates at D.C.’s Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering to a “low” of 25 reported by D.C.’s Dickstein Shapiro Morin & Oshinsky. Interestingly, D.C.’s Crowell & Moring, which ranks 11th, is at the bottom of new hiring this year, planning to add just three associates. “This is quite a change from the hand-wringing of last winter” over skyrocketing associate salaries, says headhunter Ann Director of D.C.’s Sitcov Director Inc. Director notes that at that time a lot of firms warned that rising salaries would put a damper on hiring lawyers straight out of school and prompt them to look more seriously at laterals. “Either they have a very optimistic view of the economy or they’ve got a lot of work now and they need associates,” Director says. Interviews with managing partners indicate that both optimism and a crush of work are fueling the hiring. At Wilmer, all the major practice groups — corporate tax, regulatory, and securities — are booming, says William Perlstein, the firm’s chairman. If the economy falters, Perlstein says the firm can fall back on its bankruptcy, trade, and securities practices, areas that typically go up when the economy goes down. “If it doesn’t slow down, we are pretty happy where we are,” he says. Wilmer grew by nearly 12 percent during the survey period of April 1, 1999, to April 1, 2000, and is confident enough to be planning to open an office soon in Tysons Corner, Va. At Swidler Berlin Shereff Friedman, which grew by 27.2 percent, managing partner Barry Direnfeld says it is hard to imagine that the firm won’t grow another 20 percent between April of this year and April 2001. “Beyond that, I don’t see how we can foresee all the variables out there,” he says. NEW FACES This year’s survey of the 100 largest law offices in the Washington region shows not only bigger firms — some because of mergers — but also some new faces, like D.C.’s Fleischman and Walsh, a 45-lawyer office with a booming telecommunications practice. Four firms have double listings this year because of growing offices in northern Virginia, up from just two firms last year. Firms with two listings are D.C.’s Hogan & Hartson and Shaw Pittman, each with McLean, Va. offices that made the list; Richmond, Va.-based Hunton & Williams, whose Washington and McLean offices were included; and Pittsburgh, Pa.’s Reed Smith Shaw & McClay, whose Washington and Falls Church, Va., offices made the cut-off. (Reed Smith’s Virginia office is known as Reed Smith Hazel & Thomas, reflecting the firm’s merger last year with Falls Church’s Hazel & Thomas.) As in past years, there is little change at the top: Hogan & Hartson remains by far the region’s largest office, with 439 lawyers, up 4 percent from last year. Hogan & Hartson is followed by two other D.C.-based bedrocks, Arnold & Porter, up 6 percent from 1999 with 335 lawyers, and Covington & Burling, up 5.3 percent with 317 lawyers. Missing this year from the top 10 is D.C.’s Steptoe & Johnson, which essentially stood still while its peers grew, and slipped from 10th to 13th place. Likewise, D.C.’s Howrey Simon Arnold & White slipped to 8th place from 7th, shrinking slightly from year to year. Steptoe and Howrey were among 26 firms reporting fewer lawyers in this survey period. Despite the flush economy, there were five more firms that were down this year than last. Others reporting fewer lawyers were D.C.’s Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld; Miller & Chevalier; Wiley, Rein & Fielding; and Sughrue, Mion, Zinn, Macpeak & Seas. And the D.C. offices of several Chicago-based firms — including Winston & Strawn, Sidley & Austin, and Kirkland & Ellis — also reported lower numbers. Wiley Rein partner Richard Wiley attributed his firm’s 2.5 percent drop to the vagaries of survey periods. “This is, frankly, our best year, and last year would have been our runner-up,” Wiley says. He says that without adding a practice group, the firm is unlikely to get much bigger than the 200 or so lawyers it has had for the past three years. “We are making some moves,” he says. “We will get bigger, but it will be incremental.” Steptoe’s managing partner, J.A. “Lon” Bouknight Jr., says that April 1 may have been the firm’s low point. “I expect continued growth, although I’m not sure it will be double-digit growth,” Bouknight says. Moving into the top 10 is Dickstein Shapiro, which added 37 lawyers in the survey period, bumping it up to 9th place from 12th. Moving up the ranks far more dramatically is the D.C. office of Mintz, Levin, Cohn, Ferris, Glovsky and Popeo, which moved to 55th place from 83rd, thanks to a strong portfolio of technology clients, including the AT&T Corp. and the Cablevision Systems Corp. Boston-based Mintz Levin added 26 lawyers to its Washington office for a total of 73 on April 1 and plans to have 78 by year’s end. In addition, the firm opened a Reston office last year that now has 21 lawyers. “We are probably almost 90 percent new economy,” says Charles Ferris, chairman of Mintz Levin’s Washington office. He foresees continued growth as the firm adds lawyers to meet client demand, and he projects that Mintz Levin will have more than 500 lawyers firmwide next April, up from 430 today. “There has been a basic shift in the infrastructure of the economy. This is not a flash in the pan,” says Ferris, whose firm took America Online Inc. public and serves as its outside general counsel. Yet Ferris says he hopes the growth does not continue at the blistering pace of the last few years, or the firm will risk losing touch with its culture. “When you grow this large, you have to work very hard to maintain a sense of interpersonal relationships,” he says. “We don’t consider ourselves just an economic confederation.” THE MERGER MOVEMENT Mergers pushed several firms higher in this year’s rankings, among them longtime Baltimore rivals Venable and Piper Marbury Rudnick & Wolfe. Piper & Marbury, which merged with Chicago’s Rudnick & Wolfe, moved into 19th place from 31st last year. Venable, tied in 1999 at 31st place with Piper & Marbury, moved up to 22nd place after mergers with D.C.’s Tucker Flyer and D.C.’s Lane, Aitken & McCann, an IP boutique. Despite a merger early this year, Howrey Simon was down by two lawyers in its D.C. office. The merger with Houston-based Arnold, White & Durkee did add to the firm’s overall size, which grew by 32.5 percent last year to 428 lawyers on April 1. “We have been concentrating our growth in other areas,” says Robert Ruyak, Howrey’s managing partner. “Our brand name in California is very strong,” Ruyak says, noting that Howrey now has about 100 lawyers in California, double the number it had a year ago. The firm plans to add another 100 lawyers over the next year, says Ruyak, and focus on four primary practice areas: intellectual property, antitrust, commercial litigation, and international advocacy. “I see law practices going back toward specialization,” Ruyak says, nevertheless adding that “firms have to be bigger. Competition demands it and economies of scale demand it. There has been a demise in the midsized law firm. They are having trouble competing.” Try telling that to Aaron Fleischman, whose firm, Fleischman and Walsh, has never been busier in its key areas: telecommunications, utilities, and transportation. “It has always been our kind of economy,” Fleischman says. “As long as there are technological changes and regulatory changes, that brings with it lots of work.” Fleischman says he has no trouble competing with his bigger peers, and the firm counts some household names among its clients, including Continental Airlines, MP3.com Inc., and Time Warner Inc., for which it is primary regulatory counsel. The firm also does regulatory work for The Washington Post and Newsweek magazine. “The main thing is to give really great service in a really smart, effective way,” he says. Instead, Fleischman’s struggle is to maintain the firm’s independence despite a flood of suitors and to add lawyers the old-fashioned way — one at a time. “We are a full-service midsized firm,” says Fleischman. “We’ve been growing steadily and very conservatively. Several people at the firm want me to hire more lawyers. But I want to grow slowly and cautiously. We could have 60 people, but we probably will have 50 by the end of the year. A lot of big firms are ineffectively run, and the people don’t get along well. To them, it is very important to be bigger.” Another firm with old-fashioned ideas about growth, Sughrue Mion, says it may have to re-evaluate its traditional eschewing of lateral hires in the face of aggressive poaching by general practice firms hungry for well-trained intellectual property associates. Last year, Sughrue Mion posted a 34.2 percent growth rate, zooming from 73 lawyers in 1998 to 98 in 1999, because of the insatiable demand for intellectual property expertise. But this year, the firm is down 9.2 percent to 89 lawyers on April 1 and is struggling to protect its flanks. “It’s a living, breathing firefight. That is the only way to describe it,” says managing partner Neil Siegel. “We have lost very young associates to general practice firms trying to build IP practices. We have headhunters calling and throwing tremendous amounts of money at raw, rookie attorneys, promising them travel and other benefits.” The firm took the rare step of bringing in two lateral associates this year, after losing about a dozen lawyers over the last two years to other firms. Siegel says the firm is sticking — for now — with its preferred method of hiring lawyers out of school and training them. Students are still accepting job offers at close to a 90 percent rate. “If that starts to slip, then something has to be done, but so far it hasn’t,” Siegel says. In the meantime, Siegel is baffled by the economics of paying top dollar to lawyers with no experience. Although Sughrue Mion is matching the new associate salaries, the firm took a hit on profits last year rather than pass the added costs along to clients. “There is no way you can make a young lawyer profitable at that salary level,” Siegel says. “The curves are all going the wrong way.” Claudia MacLachlan is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C., and a regular contributor to Legal Times.

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