Wilson Sonsini isn’t easy to escape.
Corporate partner Michael Ringler returned to his longtime home this week, just a month after his much-ballyhooed departure to Kirkland & Ellis. Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati welcomed him back — again: As a young associate, Ringler defected to Latham & Watkins, only to come back after about eight months in 2000.
Ringler and Kirkland probably realized they were not a good match, lawyers and recruiters familiar with Ringler and the two firms say.
Ringler’s situation is striking, but he is not the only one who has had trouble leaving Wilson Sonsini behind. Some partners who want to go never make it out the door — Wilson is famous for making counteroffers when other firms encroach on its talent, recruiters say. And lawyers who grow up at the go-to Silicon Valley firm sometimes feel torn about its renown and connections, which shower them with business but can make it hard for them to establish their own names.
Having worked on many deals with firm chairman Larry Sonsini, Ringler wanted to build something — and so did Kirkland. Kirkland & Ellis has made a national push this year to deepen its M&A capabilities. The shift from sell to buy-side work would have been a natural progression for a Silicon Valley-trained M&A lawyer like Ringler.
But Ringler was at Kirkland for just a week and a half, having gone on vacation after leaving Wilson — far too little time to launch a practice. And the typical reasons for botched lateral moves don’t seem to apply. Conflicts did not throw a wrench in the deal. His compensation at Wilson is unchanged. A poor fit is seen as the likely explanation.
Neither Ringler nor David Breach, a San Francisco-based corporate partner who sits on Kirkland’s global executive management committee, would comment on the departure. But Kirkland has a reputation for a sharp-elbowed environment. And lateral partners at any firm must prove themselves anew, law firm consultant Peter Zeughauser said. Social capital acquired at one firm rarely transfers to another.
"When you go to a new place, no one knows who you are or what you did," Zeughauser said. "It’s, ‘What are you going to do for me tomorrow?’"
And yet some Wilson lawyers can’t help but be curious about what it would be like to strike out on their own. Sonsini casts a big shadow, says legal recruiter Larry Watanabe.
"Some people want to separate themselves to try to establish their own brand," he said.
It’s hard to do. Judith O’Brien, who recently joined King & Spalding after a stint away from firms, says she is using the relationships she formed in two decades at Wilson to compete with the Valley stalwart. But others fail to replicate the magic on their own.
"Some people think they have a stronger brand than they do," O’Brien said. "When they leave, they realize how powerful the Wilson Sonsini brand is and how much it was contributing to their practice."
Clients are so deeply institutionalized, or attached to Sonsini, that lateral partners struggle to pry them away when they leave, recruiters say. Wilson says Ringler didn’t take any clients with him, and recruiters say Kirkland may not have been expecting him to.
The firm has been looking to bolster its corporate bench in the Bay Area for some time. Last year, as Dewey & LeBoeuf collapsed, Kirkland was among the bidders for Richard Climan’s M&A group, which ended up going to Weil, Gotshal & Manges.
Plus, the firm is known for its willingness to spend what it takes to land the lateral partners it wants, law firm consultant Kent Zimmermann said.
"We weren’t shocked that other firms would see what we see: an excellent M&A lawyer," Wilson Sonsini managing partner John Sheridan said of Ringler.
The moves they never made
Ringler isn’t the first partner to profess a change of heart after pulling the trigger. Uprooting your practice takes a toll, said legal recruiter Daren Wein.
"Serial movers become hardened to it," he said. "But it can be emotionally taxing."
Finance partner David Barksdale left Ballard Spahr for Alston & Bird in March 2012, only to return six months later. He says the decision to leave Ballard Spahr was among the hardest of his life. The choice to go back was easy.
"It was so clear what I had left behind," Barksdale said.
Firms work hard to avoid a lateral’s about-face, says recruiter Natasha Innocenti, who adds that Ringler’s reversal underscores the importance of using a recruiter to help assess the fit at prospective destinations. Recruiters perform types of due diligence that partners may not even realize they need.
"This is not an ideal situation for anybody — Wilson, K&E or Mike," Innocenti said. "I’m sure a lot of otherwise billable hours and goodwill went into this recruitment."
Fortunately, Wilson welcomes back former partners, said Carmen Chang, who left the firm in 2003 and returned to help open its first China office in 2005.
"It’s a place that respects individuals … and respects what you want to do," said Chang, who is now a senior of counsel at Covington & Burling.
Odds are that Ringler will depart yet again, recruiters say. Most partners who accept counteroffers ultimately end up moving on because their reasons for wanting to leave haven’t gone away, Innocenti said. (Unless the motive for the move was money, in which case the partner should have approached his firm before going on the market, she added.)
Bruce Vanyo recalls feeling ready for a new challenge after two decades at Wilson. He was poised to start work at Weil in 2004. But Wilson caught him on his way out, he said.
"They were pulling at the sentimental heartstrings: ‘How can you leave this firm that you’ve built?’" Vanyo said.
So he stayed — for two more years. He says he still loves Wilson, but the itch to move on never subsided. He is now a partner at Katten Muchin Rosenman in Los Angeles, though he did not head there straight out of Wilson. He made a stop first at — yes — Kirkland but left after a month because of conflicts.
"I didn’t even unpack my boxes when I was at Kirkland," he said. "It was like the move I never made."