Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy doesn’t lose too many partners to rival firms. But for Paul Wessel, the former head of Milbank’s compensation and benefits group, the opportunity to lead a similar practice at Weil, Gotshal & Manges—and rejoin several former colleagues from Dewey Ballantine in the process—was too good to pass up.

Wessel—who spent more than 20 years at Dewey before leaving the firm just prior to its ill-fated 2007 merger with LeBoeuf, Lamb, Greene & MacRae— jumped to Weil last month and will head the firm’s executive compensation and employee benefits practice in New York.
 
As it happens, Wessel’s move came about a week before Milbank poached Weil capital markets counsel Stuart Morrissy, who joined his new firm as a partner in its global securities practice. Morrissy, who did not return a request for comment, follows a group of Weil partners who left the firm in late 2011 to join Milbank. (Rod Miller, the leader of that group, once coheaded Weil’s capital markets practice.)
 
With multiple partners shuttling between the two firms, which are frequently adverse to one another in bankruptcy cases, it might appear that Weil and Milbank are locked in a lateral tug-of-war. (If not Hatfields and McCoys, perhaps Hadleys and McCloys, if you will.) Not so, says Wessel, noting that the two lateral moves are nothing more than coincidence. He cites two main factors as driving his decision to leave Milbank for Weil.
 
The first, Wessel says, was the opportunity to lead Weil’s robust transactional-based executive compensation practice. While he has high praise for Milbank’s M&A expertise, Wessel says the size of Weil’s group allows it to handle more corporate and private equity work. "The scope of the practice is just larger," adds Wessel, who did not use a legal recruiter for the lateral move.
 
Overall, Milbank’s 585 lawyers generated $652 million in gross revenues in 2011, according to the firm’s most recently available Am Law 100 financial data. By comparison, Weil’s 1,153 lawyers brought in nearly $1.3 billion in gross revenue. (During the same period, Weil and Milbank had profits per partner of $2.4 million and nearly $2.6 million, respectively.)
 
The other factor luring Wessel to Weil was the opportunity to work with some of his former Dewey colleagues, specifically corporate department chair Michael Aiello.
 
Aiello left Dewey for Weil in January 2007, the same month that the firm’s merger talks collapsed with Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe. Aiello’s departure was among the first in what would become an exodus of partners from Dewey, where Wessel served as a member of the executive committee. Wessel himself left Dewey to join Milbank in February 2007.
 
"I have nothing but the highest regard for Dewey, and I appreciate that I was associated with the firm for so long," says Wessel, who joined the firm in 1986 and worked at Dewey through its transactional heyday in the 1990s.
 
As most observers are well aware, Dewey eventually found a merger partner when it combined with LeBoeuf Lamb in August 2007. That tie-up ended in a spectacular flameout last year, according to our previous reports.
 
"I thought highly of LeBoeuf Lamb as well, and while some mergers work, I was sad to see that one didn’t work out," adds Wessel. "But that’s life in the big city."

According to filings made in Dewey’s Chapter 11 case, Wessel has agreed to chip in $10,396 to a partner contribution plan that is expected to bring in some $70 million to help pay back creditors owed a staggering $600 million. The settlement deal, which will see roughly 444 former partners contribute between $5,000 and $3.37 million each as a means of protecting themselves from future Dewey-related liabilities, still needs to be approved as part of a final Chapter 11 plan.

Wessel, who currently serves as chairman of the executive compensation subcommittee for the ABA’s business law section, is happy to be reunited at Weil with Aiello and a handful of other former Dewey colleagues. But he also savors his time at Milbank, where his notable assignments included being part of a team that advised Catalyst Health Solutions last year on its $4.4 billion sale to pharmacy benefits manager SXC Health Solutions; professional services firm Towers Perrin on its 2009 merger of equals with Watson Wyatt Worldwide; and Sovereign Bancorp on its $2.9 billion sale to Spanish banking giant Banco Santander in 2008.

"It was a great place to work for the past six years," Wessel says.