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Two senior partners have defected to national firms from the employment law department of Newark, N.J.’s Gibbons, Del Deo, Dolan, Griffinger & Vecchione, another illustration of how the brain drain is challenging New Jersey’s large firms. During the summer, John Ridley, 58, joined Drinker Biddle & Shanley, the Florham Park, N.J., branch of Philadelphia’s Drinker Biddle & Reath. This month, Kerry Parker, 46, went to work in the Newark office of New York’s Epstein Becker & Green. Each lawyer had various reasons for going to firms twice the size or bigger than 170-attorney Gibbons Del Deo, which had been their home for most of their professional careers. But the fundamental impetus was the same. They say they wanted national platforms to serve their clients. And they suggest that employment lawyers for large corporations are particularly vulnerable to pressure to do what they did. “It really is all about client service and retention,” Parker says. Parker, like every big-firm lawyer these days, is always trying to expand his client base, and one of those opportunities became the catalyst for his departure. Global financial giant Deutsche Bank, which has widespread operations in the United States, wanted to hire him but there was a glitch. The bank has joined a national trend toward limiting its law firms to a select few, and Gibbons Del Deo was not on the list. Epstein Becker, with its 325 lawyers, was, and that is where Parker landed, choosing the client over his existing firm. Limiting the number of firms and forging close relationships with those that make the cut is a well-documented trend among corporate law departments. The drive got started in a big way 10 years ago when DuPont began eliminating most of its 350 firms, consultants and service providers. The latest list contains only 39 firms. General counsel at a management seminar in Chicago sponsored by Martindale-Hubbell earlier this year identified such convergence as one of the major themes in corporate lawyering, seminar organizer David Goehl wrote in the June issue of Corporate Counsel, a publication affiliated with the Law Journal and law.com. Parker says his new firm is a good fit because Epstein Becker, besides its longtime identification as a labor and employment firm, is also on outside counsel lists of corporations in the health care field, another of Parker’s practice areas. He says labor and employment work for corporations tends to gravitate toward national firms at a time when businesses are instituting company-wide policies that are affected by state laws. The ideal firms, he suggests, have branches that are widely scattered around the country, with lawyers familiar with local conditions. Epstein Becker has 11 branches. Being in one state does not limit the lawyer to work in that state; Parker says he has already become involved in work that originated in California. “There is a lot of interplay between the offices,” he says. Ridley says his connection to Drinker Biddle & Shanley was a longtime friend, Daniel O’Connell, managing partner of the firm’s Florham Park wing. Ridley says Gibbons Del Deo and Shanley & Fisher, his new firm’s predecessor, seemed to have the most similar cultures and philosophy among the larger New Jersey firms. But that was not what attracted him. It was the opportunity to serve clients on a larger platform and be a key player in an effort by 425-lawyer Drinker Biddle to expand its national labor and employment department, he says. Ridley says he will join a lawyer in the Philadelphia office as co-chair of a new firmwide department of 30 attorneys doing employment and labor work. Also part of the mix are a labor and employment group that came over from Washington, D.C.’s Swidler Berlin Shereff Friedman and a companion department that will concentrate on ERISA and benefits work, Ridley says. Ridley says medium-sized firms will remain players in labor and employment litigation that involve single plaintiffs but that the larger firms will dominate the defense of class actions. Toshiba Corp. and Hoffmann-La Roche Inc. are among his clients in that field, he says. At Gibbons Del Deo, meanwhile, managing partner David Sheehan says he wishes both his former partners well and that the firm’s employment department will thrive under its chairman, Christine Amalfe. Sheehan says it remains possible for firms like his to generate clients in the globalizing economy, but he adds, “I do think it’s a challenge for firms of our size.” One solution is to demonstrate to companies that the quality of the work will be equal to that at national firms, but at lower rates, he says. Firms can also make strategic moves to position themselves as sizeable regional players, a strategy Gibbons Del Deo has used successfully, he says. In April, the firm merged with New York intellectual property firm Cobrin & Gittes and its New York presence now consists of 40 lawyers on an entire floor of One Pennsylvania Plaza. There is also independent evidence that even corporations with pared-down lists of outside attorneys will continue to choose midsize firms with which in-house counsel have formed personal relationships. DuPont’s 39-firm list, for example, includes Newark’s Carpenter, Bennett & Morrissey and Haddonfield, N.J.’s Archer & Griener. And Stewart Michaels, an owner of Topaz Attorney Search of West Orange, N.J., says midsize firms will continue to do well by working for midsize companies that do not have legal departments and need an outside firm to act as general counsel. At the larger corporations, though, staff lawyers tend to play it safe in law firm choices, and “you can’t get fired for choosing IBM or a brand name law firm,” says Michaels’ partner, Ronni Gaines. They worked with Parker in his firm-switching quest. Michaels says New Jersey lawyers are likely to perform well in firmwide initiatives in large partnerships because they are accustomed to going up against New York and Philadelphia firms. “They are used to competing head to head with these firms and putting themselves on the line, so it’s not a difficult transition.” Ridley echoes such sentiments. Asked why, in his late 50s, he would want to switch to what could be a more stressful environment, he says it’s a myth that lawyers at homegrown New Jersey firms do not have to work as hard as their competitors in New York, Washington and Philadelphia. Not that jumping to a bigger firm is a snap. “My wife told me this will either keep you young or kill you,” he says.

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