Atlanta’s Big Law marketplace is becoming ever more competitive—and crowded—as more and more regional and national firms move in.
Meanwhile, traditionally dominant Atlanta firms like King & Spalding and Alston & Bird have sought more high-value national and international work, creating local opportunities.
That’s produced a marketplace with a lot more churn.
Only nine of the 45 Am Law 100/200 firms in Atlanta are homegrown. The rest range from small outposts to sizable operations, and the competition for work and talent is stiff.
Although that number has only increased from 41 firms to 45 over the last five years, the mix has changed. Five firms have disappeared, while another nine have appeared.
“There are a lot of bodies lying across the roadway—firms that came into Atlanta and thought they were going to kill it,” said Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough’s Atlanta managing partner, Michael Hollingsworth.
Atlanta has become the Columbia, South Carolina-based firm’s largest office, with 152 lawyers, acting as a strategic hub for legal work and a significant revenue driver.
Double-digit revenue growth vaulted Nelson Mullins from the Second Hundred to the Am Law 100 in 2016. Last year, a 3.9 percent revenue increase pushed it up one spot to No. 87, and profits per partner broke the $1 million mark.
“King & Spalding and that top-tier group are chasing a certain type of premium legal work done by Am Law 25 firms,” Hollingsworth said. “I don’t think Nelson Mullins has any interest in that sort of pursuit. We think we can be very competitive in the Am Law 50 or 75.”
The churn among firms in Atlanta is most pronounced among the Second Hundred. All of the firms that have left the city since 2013 were in that category: Schiff Hardin, Robins Kaplan and Epstein Becker & Green.
Two others that were right in the middle of the Am Law pack, Atlanta stalwarts Sutherland Asbill & Brennan and McKenna Long & Aldridge, still have a sizable local presence but have combined with international firms—Eversheds and Dentons, respectively. The American Lawyer no longer considers them part of the Am Law list, as more than half their lawyers are outside the United States.
In the last five years, seven Am Law firms have ventured into Atlanta, including Squire Patton Boggs (No. 31), which planted its flag in January with three partners from Dentons.
Baker & Hostetler (No. 56) and Polsinelli (No. 69) have also opened offices since 2012—and expanded them rapidly. Baker & Hostetler is up to 71 lawyers locally, many of them defectors from Dentons’ predecessor, McKenna, who did not want to join a global megafirm.
The new Second Hundred entrants, all with small outposts, were Wilson Elser Moskowitz Edelman & Dicker (No. 106), LeClairRyan (No. 169), Adams and Reese (No. 170) and Sherman & Howard (No. 189).
LeClairRyan shut its doors in Atlanta in March when Baker & Hostetler poached its three local partners.
Two established local firms also joined the Am Law 200 during that period: Smith, Gambrell & Russell (No. 193) and Arnall Golden Gregory (No. 195). The other Atlanta-based Second Hundred firms are labor and employment firm Fisher & Phillips (No. 151) and Morris Manning & Martin (No. 176).
Unlike Sutherland and McKenna, these Atlanta firms’ leaders say they aren’t interested in mergers.
Smith Gambrell is opting to create its own national platform, opening small offices last year in the U.K. and Germany and expanding in New York. This year it opened a Los Angeles office by acquiring a local 11-lawyer boutique.
“We are charting our own course,” said chairman Stephen Forte. “We prefer our business model to someone else’s that is really just interested in adding numbers to their throngs of lawyers.”
Morris Manning and Arnall Golden have bucked the conventional wisdom and stuck to their Atlanta base with smaller branches in Washington and elsewhere. That said, they have national practices in real estate development, as well as tech for Morris Manning and health care for Arnall Golden.
All three general practice firms prospered last year, with Morris Manning, Arnall Golden and Smith Gambrell increasing revenue by 8.4 percent, 5.5 percent and 4.2 percent, respectively. That compares with a 0.2 percent decline for the Second Hundred as a whole last year—and is more akin to the 5.5 percent revenue growth for the Am Law 100.
Like Nelson Mullins, Morris Manning and Arnall Golden have PPP around $1 million and RPL around $750,000. That’s about the same as much larger Atlanta-based Am Law 100 firms such as Troutman Sanders and Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton.
With so many Am Law firms competing at all levels in the city, law firm leaders have to keep on their toes.
“You’ve got to be laser-focused on what you’re trying to do in the marketplace—and be managed in an accountable and disciplined way,” said Nelson Mullins’ Hollingsworth. “If you lose sight of that, you’re going to get your lunch eaten.”