SONNENSCHEIN DROPS IN WASHINGTON EVEN AS THE FIRM GOES GLOBAL

Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal may have pulled off a trans-Atlantic merger this year, creating SNR Denton, but in Washington the firm saw its headcount fall sharply. The firm went from 89 lawyers to 61, marking a decline of 31.5%. Sonnenschein’s drop comes after the firm had been working to rebuild after three rounds of layoffs in 2008 and 2009. In late 2008, the firm brought on 100 lawyers from now-defunct Thacher Proffitt & Wood, including several in Washington. Elliott Portnoy, co-chief executive officer of SNR Denton, attributed most of the most recent departures to the “natural attrition” of associates. That said, in February, partners Marc Zwillinger and Christian Genetski left the firm to open the cybersecurity boutique Zwillinger Genetski and were joined by two associates. Among the reasons cited by Zwillinger and Genetski for their move was the ability to offer more flexible rates. The firm also saw veteran lobbyist Ron Platt jump to McGuireWoods and Elizabeth Ferrell, who chaired the firm’s government contracts practice, join McKenna Long & Aldridge. Portnoy said that, recently, the firm has been working to add laterals. In June, the firm brought on Carter Simpson, who had been Exxon Mobil Corp.’s senior counsel for antitrust and trade regulation, and John Harrington, formerly international tax counsel for the Treasury Department. “We’ve changed how we approach lateral hires,” Portnoy said. “We’re looking for lawyers whose practices are more global in nature.”

NEW YORK PLAYERS TAKE A HIT IN D.C.

For firms whose home offices are in New York, 2010 brought a thrashing. Of the 18 New York-based firms in Washington, 12 reported decreases in D.C. headcount. Combined, those firms lost 202 lawyers, or 12% of their overall headcount. Put another way, one in four lawyers missing from this year’s Legal Times 150 came from a New York-based firm. The biggest overall loser was Dewey & LeBoeuf, which lost 30 lawyers — 21% of its overall headcount. Of the lawyers who left Dewey, 14 were partners. Abraham Shashy Jr., managing partner of Dewey’s Washington office, said that reduced client demand in the firm’s mergers and acquisitions, private equity and capital markets practices “accelerated the attrition we would normally see.” Shashy added that the litigation practice, which is often a bright spot in economic downturns, was slow to pick up. On the other end of the spectrum, Hughes Hubbard & Reed posted a 19.5% increase, going from 41 lawyers to 49. William Stein, managing partner of Hughes Hubbard’s Washington office, said the firm has been working to expand its litigation practice, particularly on the internal investigation side. “Our view is that we should continue doing what we’ve been doing — playing to our strengths,” Stein said.

WITH COMMUNICATIONS FOCUS, WILKINSON DEFIES GRAVITY

For Washington-based Wilkinson Barker Knauer, it pays to be a boutique. By focusing solely on communications work and offering substantially lower rates than larger firms, Wilkinson grew from 35 lawyers to 42 in 2010, marking an uptick in headcount of 20%. That’s the largest rate of growth among Legal Times 150 firms that didn’t have a significant merger. Bryan Tramont, Wilkinson’s managing partner, said the firm has taken advantage of shifts in the legal marketplace during the past few years to pick up lawyers from larger firms. With clients looking to cut legal spending, Tramont said laterals have seen boutiques as a way to offer more flexible rates while continuing to build their practices. In February, the firm brought on a six-lawyer team from Denver-based Kamlet Reichert to open an office in that city and added partner Kyle Dixon to the Washington office. A month later, the firm brought on another six-lawyer team from Morrison & Foerster, including the chairwoman of its communications practice, Cheryl Tritt. Clients appear to have noticed as well. According to court records, Wilkinson represents Comcast Corp. and Intel Corp. “When people look at us, they see the high quality of large national firms mixed with the nimbleness of a small firm. We think that’s a very powerful combination,” Tramont said.