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It was a difficult year for many law firms, but for Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, 2008 was especially challenging. The firm shed 59 partners–more than any other firm The American Lawyer tracked this year. Now at 898 lawyers, Akin lost 17 percent of its partners to competitors, small firms, in-house positions, and government jobs. Some of those defections were anticipated–fallout from strategic shifts in the firm’s practice groups and management structure. But others were a surprise. Akin’s streamlining started in 2007, when the firm decided to overhaul its intellectual property, labor and employment, public policy, and energy practices to focus on more profitable work, according to firm chairman R. Bruce McLean. In IP, that meant jettisoning licensing and transactional work for high-stakes patent litigation. As a result, a five-partner IP group in the 15-lawyer Philadelphia office was the first casualty. The quintet left in December 2007 to start their own boutique, Panitch Schwarze Belisario & Nadel. Last summer, Akin’s entire 14-lawyer Silicon Valley office, which advised electronics, software, semiconductor, and medical device companies, decamped for Alston & Bird. “At Akin, the firm culture was driven by the bottom line,” says Steven Hemminger, a partner who joined from White & Case in 2007, only to depart a year later for Alston. “Their management made a poor decision that patent prosecution and counseling were too low-margin.” The Houston office saw more upheaval. Ten energy partners, some specializing in infrastructure development projects or land use, left the 75-lawyer office after the energy group put a premium on climate change and regulatory matters. But the Houston office did add energy partner David Elder–the only 2008 lateral partner hire–from Locke Lord Bissell & Liddell. More partners were lost when Akin reorganized its labor and employment practice, seeking to move from single-plaintiff defense cases to large corporate class actions. Twelve labor and employment partners hit the road for Hunton & Williams, Greenberg Traurig, Morrison & Foerster, and Jones Day, and to set up their own shops. “We thought the labor and employment lawyers were extremely talented and could have refocused their practice on higher-end clients,” says McLean, who says he was surprised that so many lawyers left. “We didn’t plan on losing all of them.” Other departures were also unexpected. White-collar partner Michael Madigan left for Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe after 28 years at Akin [see Star Laterals of the Year]. He says Orrick “presented a terrific opportunity.”In Los Angeles, business litigation partner Phillip Eskenazi joined a 14-partner migration to Hunton even though his practice fit Akin’s new look. “My practice was doing well, but I was operating autonomously,” says Eskenazi. “And my work wasn’t the firm’s focus” [see Personal Touch]. Meanwhile, the New York office was taking center stage, as the office’s restructuring group scored representation of the official unsecured creditors committee from Washington Mutual, Inc., and an informal committee of bondholders in the Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. bankruptcy. Early last year, two New York partners were named to a new six-member policy and planning committee. Commercial litigation partner Kim Koopersmith also became the first U.S. managing partner. The gradual shift in power left other offices feeling ignored. After New York’s rise in prominence at Akin, “the Texas marketplace was not at the top of the firm’s list,” says insurance and regulatory partner Thomas Bond, who left with two other partners in August after 23 years at Akin to open Greenberg Traurig’s Austin office. While losing 59 partners hasn’t been easy, McLean, who has been Akin’s chairman for the past 16 years, expects that the slimmed-down practice areas will pay off. In 2007 the firm saw profits per partner fall nearly 7 percent to slightly more than $1.2 million, putting it sixtieth on The Am Law 200 partner profit charts. But in early January he predicted that profits per partner grew as much as 10 percent in 2008 as a result of the shake-up, “What we are seeing is a slimmed-down firm generating more profits,” says McLean. At least, that’s the plan. Click here for our chart Jumping Ship: Biggest Losses

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