Atlanta skyline (Photo: John Disney/ALM) Photo: John Disney/ALM

Big Law got bigger in 2018, and Atlanta was no exception, as firms continued to merge and expand into new markets.

The year started out with a new firm in town, as global giant Squire Patton Boggs raided four partners from Dentons—Ann-Marie McGaughey, Wayne Bradley, Petrina McDaniel and Dara Mann—to open an Atlanta office at the start of February. The office, led by McGaughey, is up to 10 lawyers and moved into permanent space, taking almost a full floor in the Promenade building at 1230 Peachtree St.

In the crowded defense litigation space, longtime Hall Booth Smith partner Robert Shannon Jr. started an outpost for Denver litigation boutique Wheeler Trigg O’Donnell at the beginning of June, which is up to five lawyers. “Really, it’s Bobby-driven,” said the 100-lawyer firm’s chairman, Michael O’Donnell, at the time. “We want the best trial lawyers in the country, and we don’t care where they live.”

In a departure, Am Law 200 firm LeClairRyan, based in Virginia, shuttered the Atlanta outpost it had opened in 2015 when the three-partner tech and data security team that launched it—John Hutchins, Chris Wiech and Janine Anthony Bowen—decamped for Baker & Hostetler. The Atlanta lateral partner market is “a very competitive landscape,” Hutchins said in March. “There are some firms that have made a brand for themselves in the cybersecurity space—and Baker is definitely one of those firms.”

Big Mergers Affect Atlanta

The ongoing run of trans-Atlantic and national mergers continues to reshape the Atlanta market. Several big firms with established Atlanta offices, Bryan Cave, Hunton & Williams and Smith Moore Leatherwood, grew even larger after mergers.

Bryan Cave’s merger with U.K.-based Berwin Leighton Paisner created Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner. The 90-lawyer Atlanta location is BCLP’s fourth-largest office, after London, St. Louis and New York. Atlanta managing partner G. Patrick Watson said in November that he’s been “pleasantly surprised” at the growing exchange of work between Atlanta and the U.K. “We are in a position to provide broader and deeper services to large corporate clients. That was the objective of the combination, and it is happening,” Watson said.

Virginia-based Hunton’s merger with Texas behemoth Andrews Kurth Kenyon in April created Hunton Andrews Kurth, a 1,000-lawyer firm with offices in 15 U.S. cities and another five internationally.

Meanwhile, Fox Rothschild entered the Atlanta market through its November acquisition of North Carolina-based Smith Moore, which has had an Atlanta office for many years. The deal also expanded Fox’s footprint into the Carolinas.

One local merger notably didn’t happen—a possible tie-up between Atlanta-based Troutman Sanders and Dallas-based Winstead, which would have created a nearly 1,000-lawyer firm and given Troutman an entree into Texas. Separately, Troutman shed its three Asia offices last spring, in Hong Kong, Beijing and Shanghai, to sharpen its focus on key areas of strength, which the firm’s managing partner, Stephen Lewis, told the Daily Report in January were middle-market clients, with particular expertise in energy, banking and finance, life sciences, and insurance.

Two firms with large Atlanta offices, Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough and Burr & Forman, expanded their Southeastern presence through combinations. South Carolina-based Nelson Mullins acquired a 150-lawyer Florida firm, Broad and Castell, in August, giving it about 725 lawyers, while Birmingham-based Burr and McNair Law Firm, based in Columbia, South Carolina, announced they will combine on Jan. 1, 2019, to create a 365-lawyer firm with 19 offices in eight states.

In a bid for an increased share of the competitive national insurance litigation market, New York-based Wilson Elser Moskowitz Edelman & Dicker expanded its Southeastern presence in the fall with new satellite locations in Birmingham, Alabama, and Nashville, Tennessee, after opening an Atlanta office in March 2017 that now has 11 lawyers.

New Leaders

After 40 years leading FordHarrison, C. Lash Harrison stepped down as managing partner at the beginning of 2018. The firm elected Orlando, Florida-based Allen McKenna as his successor. McKenna is a member of the firm’s executive committee and led its health care practice.

Under Harrison’s leadership, FordHarrison grew from 14 lawyers in Atlanta to become a national labor and employment firm with almost 200 lawyers in 29 U.S. locations, including three affiliate firms. In November, the firm announced its latest office in St. Louis, launched by a five-lawyer team from Jackson Lewis.

Atlanta’s Morris Manning & Martin elected Simon Malko as its new leader, effective Jan. 1, 2019. He will succeed Louise Wells, the firm’s managing partner for almost a decade, who retires at the end of the year.

Malko, 46, is only the third managing partner in Morris Manning’s 42-year history, after Wells and Robert Saudek, one of the seven lawyers who started what was initially a real estate boutique in 1976. He is also the youngest managing partner for the firm, which has grown under Wells’ leadership from 130 to 201 lawyers and broken into the ranks of the Am Law 200. An 8.4 percent revenue increase to $129.8 million in 2017 pushed it up to No. 176 on the current list.

Womble Bond Dickinson named Joel Pieper to succeed Michael Sullivan as its new managing partner for Atlanta—one of the firm’s largest offices—just as the firm marked the one-year anniversary of the trans-Atlantic union of North Carolina-based Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice and U.K. firm Bond Dickinson.

Barnes & Thornburg elected John Koenig as its new Atlanta managing partner. He succeeded Stuart Johnson, who joined the Indianapolis-based firm from Powell Goldstein in 2009 to open the Atlanta office, shortly after that firm’s acquisition by Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner.

Pay Raises Strike Again

A wave of associate pay raises that started in New York in June affected just about all of Atlanta’s large firms.

The city’s two largest firms, King & Spalding and Alston & Bird, followed by Eversheds Sutherland, were the first to match the New York pay scale initiated in June by Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy—with commensurate increases in Atlanta. Those increases were effective July 1.

The New York scale boosted starting pay by $10,000 to $190,000, with eighth-year associates now making $340,000. The Atlanta raises also featured a $10,000 boost, bringing starting pay to $165,000, while eighth-year pay rose $25,000 to $265,000.

That was a big bump to the existing Atlanta scale of $155,000 to $240,000 that took effect at big firms two years ago, after another national round of pay raises hiked starting pay by $20,000. The 2016 raises had been the first across-the-board raises since 2007.

By August, Troutman Sanders, Morris Manning and Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton had followed suit and raised associate pay. Other national firms with Atlanta offices, including Jones DayPaul HastingsDLA Piper and Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner, also matched the pay increases.