Jeffrey Smith, the former head of the banking litigation practice at now-defunct Bingham McCutchen, has joined Phillips Nizer as senior counsel in New York.

After nearly 40 years in Big Law, Smith is charting new path in his jump to the 62-lawyer firm, which announced his hire this week.

“I was kind of intrigued by the idea because I realized, ‘Gee, you’ve never actually done this,’ and maybe it would be fun and interesting to see what it’s like to practice in a different sort of environment with good quality people,” Smith said. “And that piqued my interest.”

Smith, who specializes in representing financial services industry companies, began his legal career nearly 40 years ago at Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft, where he became head of its litigation group and a member of the firm’s five-person executive committee. After 24 years at Cadwalader, Smith left the firm in 2001 for King & Spalding to help build out the latter’s litigation practice in New York.

Then in 2007, Smith hit the lateral market again, moving with five other top securities litigators to McKee Nelson, where he helped the Washington, D.C.-based shop form a litigation group that would eventually become one of specialty firm’s prized practices.

By mid-2009, the 173-lawyer McKee Nelson had been acquired by Bingham McCutchen in a merger that sent shock waves through a legal industry roiling from the abrupt economic downturn. That union, however, would come under scrutiny ahead of Bingham McCutchen’s eventual demise in late 2014. Financial guarantees reportedly given to Smith and other McKee Nelson heavy-hitters by Bingham McCutchen in order to clinch that 2009 tie-up would be cited by some as undermining the combined firm’s viability, although others would push back against such assertions, noting that Bingham McCutchen’s myriad issues were not nearly so simple.

Morgan, Lewis & Bockius absorbed the bulk of Bingham McCutchen in a deal finalized three years ago this month. Smith was one of several key partners at Bingham McCutchen whose assent to the agreement was required in order for Morgan Lewis to proceed with its acquisition and prevent a dissolution in bankruptcy court, a move that saved the jobs of at least 300 legal professionals. On the one-year anniversary of that rescue deal in November 2015, The American Lawyer reported that Morgan Lewis had no debt and strong revenue growth.

Jeffrey Smith

Smith remained a partner at Morgan Lewis until the end of 2016, when he left the partnership and took a senior counsel role at the firm. Smith said that his desire to leave a long, at times tumultuous, Big Law career behind him grew out of the opportunity to practice at a smaller firm that will reunite him with several former Bingham McCutchen colleagues.

Those individuals include Mark Elliott, the current chair of Phillips Nizer’s litigation department who joined the firm in early 2015 after four months with Morgan Lewis, and Jared Clark, a bankruptcy and commercial litigation partner at Phillips Nizer in New York who also joined the firm from Morgan Lewis in early 2016.

Smith also noted that by moving to a smaller firm like Phillips Nizer, he avoids many client conflicts that large, multinational law firms face, thus providing him with more opportunities to take on different matters for different clients within his financial services litigation practice.

“There’s a lot of really good things about practicing in a large firm and I certainly chose to do it for a long time,” said Smith, who did not use a legal recruiter for his move to Phillips Nizer. “[But] I do think it’s challenging on occasion, particularly for litigators because [the] larger the firm happens to be the greater the likelihood that you’re going to have conflict, and conflicts bite the most in litigation because they’re not so easily waved.”

Smith is one of two lateral additions made this week by Phillips Nizer, which in September watched five lawyers decamp for Michelman & Robinson. Christian Hylton, a land use partner at New York’s Borah, Goldstein, Altschuler, Nahins & Goidel, joined Phillips Nizer as a partner in the firm’s government relations and real estate practices. Outside of Manhattan, Phillips Nizer has two other offices in East Hampton, New York, and Hackensack, New Jersey.