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Orrick, Arnold & Porter and Weil expand partner ranks aggressively while New York leaders grow at junior level

Lateral partner hiring across the top US and international firms in London has almost doubled over the last five years, according to research from Legal Week.

A survey of hiring trends at 33 US and transatlantic firms with operations in the City found the group made a total of 79 lateral partner hires during 2008 – 11 more than in 2007, despite the banking crisis and the onset of the global recession.

The total figure is higher than during the boom year of 2005 when the group brought in 72 partners between them from rival firms. Of the 79, 58 were partners at their previous firms but only 37 came from UK firms, demonstrating the continued movement between US firms and the struggle US firms face recruiting star partners from top City firms.

Several of those investing most in their partner ranks during 2008 were firms that had previously been more circumspect in London, such as Orrick Herrington & Sutcliffe, which brought in seven partners, and Arnold & Porter, which made five lateral hires.

Orrick London head Martin Bartlam told Legal Week: “We expanded into areas where we saw the need to develop in spite of the difficult circumstances. The difference in 2009 is that the continued, and even increased, level of uncertainty in relation to the market is such that the balance of risk is likely to make us more cautious.”

Of the Wall Street leaders, only Weil Gotshal & Manges increased its lateral partner hiring activity last year, bringing in three new partners compared with none the previous year.

However, while most New York firms may not have been actively recruiting partners in London, some elite players significantly boosted their associate ranks between January 2008 and January 2009. Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton increased its non-partner lawyer ranks from 67 to 83, Cravath Swaine & Moore went from 14 lawyers to 17, while Skadden Arps Slate Meagher & Flom saw non-partner headcount rise by 22 to 115.

Cleary London finance partner Glen Scarcliffe (pictured) said much of its headcount increase could be attributed to the firm’s trainee programme, but added: “We have an institutional preference for organic growth [but] in the UK market, where we are in the backyard of the 800lb gorillas, we have needed to make a number of lateral hires and have been fortunate with the hires that we have made.”

The survey also highlighted those firms that saw headcount drop over the year. Shearman & Sterling saw non-partner headcount fall by 16 on the back of a recruitment freeze and the relocation of a number of lawyers, while Reed Smith and Dechert, both of which announced redundancy consultations last year, also saw headcount fall.

White & Case, meanwhile, gained more than 30 lawyers but saw partner numbers drop from 81 to 73, with high-profile losses including two of the biggest moves of the year – Maurice Allen and Mike Goetz to Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer.

With some US firms now implementing redundancy consultations in London, few predict an increase in hiring activity in 2009.

Colin Potter, a partner at Global Legal Search, said: “There will be one or two firms that will take advantage of the abundance of available talent and grow practice areas that have been problematic in the past. Most firms, however, are saying that this is not the time to be hiring.”

Big-name partner moves in 2008

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