Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr reached new financial highs last year, buoyed by modest increases that were split among a slightly smaller partnership.
Gross revenue in 2018 was up 1 percent year-over-year to $1.149 billion, driving a 2.1 percent increase in revenue per lawyer to nearly $1.34 million. Net income was flat, but a 2 percent decrease in the firm’s partner head count helped push profits per equity partner up by about 2 percent.
Wilmer co-managing partner Robert Novick said the firm has benefited from the controversy and investigation-driven environment that ramped up in 2018, keeping its lawyers busy with litigation, arbitrations and investigations.
The firm is committed to opening a new San Francisco location later this year, Novick said, taking advantage of Wilmer’s ability to bridge Bay Area and Washington, D.C.-focused practices and client needs.
The office will include lawyers that will move over from Wilmer’s existing Palo Alto, California, office, as well as new hires, according to Novick. The firm’s strengths in IP litigation and emerging markets and a technology company clientele that includes Facebook and Apple makes San Francisco a key potential growth center, he said, adding that choosing to enter that market was an “easy” decision.
“We’re not fooled by the fact that we’re going to a market that is, I won’t say saturated, but is very well represented already,” Novick said. “What we think is our differentiator, or at least one of the things that differentiates us not from everybody but makes us among a smaller group of firms, is our Washington capability—when companies are realizing they’ve got to deal with Washington; that if they don’t deal with Washington, Washington is going to deal with them.”
Wilmer is also poised to be a more aggressive player this year in what Novick termed the ongoing “lateral warfare” in the legal market. He said to expect 10 to 15 lateral hires firmwide, including one whom he refused to name, who he said would join “one of our key departments that will help part of succession planning and part of building that practice in the future.”
The firm performed well “counter-cyclically” against competitors that are focused primarily on corporate work, Novick said, applying congressional, investigations, litigation and public relations expertise to a series of multifaceted complex crises. Novick said in 2018 the firm raised its rates by 5 percent.
“We’re not building for down economies, that’s not our strategy, but we happen to be well placed in a down economic cycle because that tends to lead to more controversy, more investigations, less corporate work,” Novick said. “Maintaining that flexibility is hopefully what will keep us in the top tier of the industry as we look two three five years in the future.”
Wilmer’s desire to remain in the industry’s top tier also resulted in associate salary raises, which Novick estimated cost the firm approximately $25 million. New associate pay scales hit Wilmer along with every other major firm last summer, and when the time came, Novick said there was “not a lot of thinking to be done” about whether to ante up.
“We’re a talent business, and attracting and retaining people that you view as the people to do the work, that’s all we’re about,” Novick said. ”You can debate whether it was necessary—and not for us but the industry—but it sort of doesn’t matter. Does it have an effect? Sure, it comes off of the bottom line, but it doesn’t really matter.”
What did matter in 2018 was the firm’s litigation, arbitration and investigations work. On the litigation front, highlights included defending Harvard against claims that its admissions process discriminates against Asian-Americans, notching an acquittal of criminal antitrust charges for ex-Citigroup trader Rohan Ramchandani, and helping Apple avoid a half-billion dollar patent infringement judgment at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit.
Wilmer’s arbitration victories included its representation of Swatch in a years-long dispute against Tiffany that concluded in the Dutch Supreme Court late last year and its successful representation of the Kurdistan Regional Government against three Middle Eastern companies.
The firm’s investigations lawyers were active as well, particularly in helping Facebook navigate congressional inquiries and traverse the imbroglio involving Cambridge Analytica’s use of data to sway voters in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
The firm last year also represented a Panasonic subsidiary in reaching settlements of $280 million with the U.S. Justice Department and U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission for alleged violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. Beyond Panasonic, Novick said the firm was “involved right now in a massive FCPA investigation” requiring the attention of 35 Wilmer lawyers around the world. He declined to name the client.
When it comes to the most high-profile investigation of all these days, Novick was mum on the future plans of the firm’s alumni working with former Wilmer partner Robert Mueller in the ongoing special counsel probe. Alongside Mueller, the special counsel’s team includes former Wilmer partners James Quarles III, Jeannie Rhee and Aaron Zebley.
“I don’t know what they plan to do, when they plan to do it, nor what we’re able to do,” Novick said. “I can’t talk about it and wouldn’t talk about it.”