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Forget the fat cats. Many law firms are now recruiting laterals who offer more promise than pay-off. “It’s a fairly healthy time for junior partners and senior associates,” said legal consultant Gary Davis. “I don’t think firms are hiring service partners. They want future leaders who will bring in business.” With so many big firms moving into San Francisco in recent years, it’s become harder to find laterals who can bring with them a torrent of rain. While elite firms can attract well-established laterals, other players have to get creative. “If you’re a Latham or a Skadden or an O’Melveny or a Wilson, you’ve got the [profit] numbers, so you can cherry-pick from firms,” said legal consultant Peter Zeughauser. “But that’s the top of the market, and not everybody can do that.” Many firms are still slugging it out for $5 million or $10 million partners. But other firms with less visibility are increasingly betting on lawyers seen as having the potential to generate big business. Miami’s Greenberg Traurig opened its Palo Alto, Calif., office earlier this year by snagging associates from top shops such as Wilson Sonsini and crowning them partner. The youth movement has also caught on at Cleveland’s Squire, Sanders & Dempsey, Philadelphia-based Duane Morris and San Francisco’s Gordon & Rees. “We’re interested in bringing them in at an earlier stage in their careers,” said Thomas Woofter, managing partner of Squire Sanders’ San Francisco office. “It’s a more successful long-term arrangement for both sides.” Woofter said the firm changed tack a year and a half ago after analyzing the success and retention rates of its lateral hiring. “It’s expensive to have people come and go on you,” Woofter remarked. “It’s better to find people you like who are energetic and have a demonstrated ability to do well.” It can be tough for younger partners to show their talent because they’ve had less time to develop clients. So firms are clearly taking a risk. “It shows a lot of confidence in the firm’s ability to assess the business development potential of these people,” Zeughauser said. Hiring partners with fat books of business, however, has its own dangers. Many hop from firm to firm in search of higher pay or a better fit. “Once a lateral, always a lateral,” Zeughauser quipped. Duane Morris has also set its sights on younger partners this year. Since the 550-lawyer firm opened its doors in San Francisco in 1998, the market for laterals has tightened immensely, said litigation partner Joseph Burton. “You’ve seen a tremendous increase in the number of firms who’ve come from outside the Bay Area into the Bay Area,” he noted. “If you’re the new guy in town,” he said, “you look to people who look like they have the ability to grow a practice area that will do well over the next several economic cycles.” Burton said Duane Morris is in serious discussions with two younger lateral partner candidates for its 24-lawyer San Francisco office. In San Diego — another cutthroat market — the firm recently hired two young corporate partners, Stuart Sorenson and P. Blake Allen. Squire Sanders, meanwhile, has hired two 38-year-old litigators in San Francisco who are bringing some work with them. “We know we’re not going to get Jeff Saper,” said recruiter Avis Caravello, who worked with Squire Sanders on the search, referring to the Wilson Sonsini rainmaker. “But we can get some young Jeff Sapers.” Partners Ethan Miller and Mark Goodman joined Squire Sanders from insurance boutique Barger & Wolen after nearly six years in that firm’s San Francisco outpost. “For better or for worse, we were pretty much on our own to develop our own clients,” Miller said. “We had to sink or swim, and we swam.” About two years ago, they began peeking around for a broader platform and eventually found a welcome mat at Squire Sanders, whose 700 lawyers are spread among 26 offices from Miami to Moscow. “Other firms were interested in what we could spin off right now but Squire, Sanders was not,” Goodman said. “I think it’s a testament to the health of the firm.” At least some of their clients are following them. Goodman said one Canadian insurance company, with 60 Ephedra-related product liability claims pending in 20 states, was very enthusiastic about their move. Squire Sanders’ offices around the U.S. give the lawyers access to local information on judges and courts in various jurisdictions. Both partners said the Squire Sanders business card is already opening new doors. “We feel extreme loyalty insofar as they gave us a shot,” Miller said. “As our book increases, which is happening rapidly, our first instinct is not to go the free-agent route.” Gordon & Rees is also turning to junior partners and senior associates to beef up its California offices. Most of the new hires at the firm’s San Diego beachhead — which exploded from 10 to 65 — are less-established lawyers. Sara Thorpe, managing partner of the San Francisco office, said Gordon & Rees wants to recruit more junior partners in order to add new practice groups such as business litigation, business transactions and intellectual property. “We’re looking for people with energy and enthusiasm who are willing to start in a new place and build a book of business.” Thorpe acknowledges the raw motivation behind the firm’s new approach: “So far, we haven’t been able to attract senior partners.”

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