Winston & Strawn chairman Thomas Fitzgerald predicted late last year that 2017 would be the “best year the firm has ever had.” He was right.
From a financial perspective, Winston & Strawn grew gross revenue by nearly 19 percent, to $978.5 million, as profits per partner at the firm topped $2 million for the first time, growing 18.4 percent, to $2.16 million. Revenue per lawyer jumped 11.7 percent, to $1.15 million.
From a recruiting perspective, Winston & Strawn has added 90 lateral partners in the past 14 months through February. Head count grew 6.4 percent last year, to 849 lawyers.
The Chicago-based Am Law 100 firm’s growth spurt was in part a result of Fitzgerald’s personal recruiting touch, as noted by The American Lawyer in December. Winston & Strawn was aided by a one-time contingent fee payment the firm received following a settlement with The Walt Disney Co. over a case filed in 2011. The firm represented Beef Products Inc. in a defamation claim following a report by Disney-owned ABC News calling the company’s product “pink slime.”
While the size of that settlement remains confidential, Disney has disclosed that it paid $177 million over its insurance limits to conclude the matter.
“We hit our bogey and our partners did great. We had a great year,” Fitzgerald said in an interview. “I owe it all to our partners. They did great.”
The firm began its year with the announcement of a new Dallas office, which opened in February 2017 with 23 partners from eight different firms. The office now stands at 57 lawyers, according to Winston & Strawn’s website.
In April, Winston & Strawn bolstered its Silicon Valley office by luring Katherine Vidal from Fish & Richardson, where she had practiced for more than 20 years and had served on the firm’s management committee.
That recruiting momentum has carried on through into 2018. Most recently, Winston & Strawn this month hired a group of seven private equity partners from Jenner & Block led by Mark Harris, who served as leader of the latter’s private equity practice.
Apart from the BPI-Disney settlement, the firm’s work made headlines when co-executive chairman Jeffrey Kessler represented the National Football League Players Association in a challenge of a six-game suspension to star Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott. The drawn-out federal court battle related to a domestic abuse investigation of Elliott conducted by the league ultimately resulted in the ex-Ohio State University standout sitting out six games.
Winston & Strawn’s nonequity ranks surged last year by 16.4 percent, to 224 partners, with compensation for that group growing by nearly 36 percent, to about $162 million. Despite the increase in recruiting, the firm’s equity partnership actually shrunk 2.4 percent, down to 140.
Fitzgerald said that was the result of Winston & Strawn’s hiring of large groups of lawyers, many of whom were leveraged with nonequity partners. In April, the firm will begin a process to move closer to a one-tier partnership, with nonequity partners paying in capital over a three-year period.
As for its recruiting streak, Fitzgerald said that Winston & Strawn will try to keep it up. But without a pink slime-size settlement on the horizon, he said the growth rates the firm notched last year may be tough to match in 2018.
“I can’t tell you we’ll be able to match last year. We want to. We’ll see,” Fitzgerald said. “Our efforts will be just as substantial. But part of it is matching up and getting opportunities and getting the breaks to have people come over. Last year was so unusual that I’d never want to say we’d match it because that would be setting myself up.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated Winston & Strawn’s 2017 revenue in the second paragraph as $948.5 million, rather than $978.5 million. We regret the error.