There’s no shortage of law firms competing to catch the next big wave — hello, intellectual property — or to revamp billing methods in a more client-centered marketplace. But Richards, Layton & Finger, the 138-attorney law firm deeply entrenched in the Delaware legal circle, is doing something radical: staying the course.
Partner Robert Krapf, who will take over as firm president in July, said that, although his partners recognize the growth potential in intellectual property or health care, devoting significant resources to chasing after them doesn’t make sense. Richards Layton has long focused on corporate transactional and litigation work in the Delaware courts.
Despite the upheaval in the legal profession during and following the recession, the tried-and-true approach has worked, Krapf said. "It’s hard not to see that there may be ways of expanding a practice but, given the nature of what we do, it may not be the most efficient use of your resources," he said.
Richards Layton has its share of big-name clients — M&T Bank Corp., for one — but much of its work has involved collaborating with other law firms in need of Delaware expertise, giving its attorneys international reach. The firm is known for its involvement in local and national bar associations and law firm associations, which Krapf said helps it connect with other practitioners and potential clients.
He said lawyers nurture relationships with other law firms through visits and regular contact. As partners at firms that Richards Layton has worked with move into senior positions and new attorneys come in, he said, keeping close ties with those firms is "something that you need to address constantly."
Beyond those relationships, Krapf said, his firm’s attorneys push to stay ahead of developments in the law so that there are no surprises for clients. "What we try to do in terms of our longer-term business planning is to make sure we know what’s coming along on the horizon," he said.
Stuart Gold, a partner at Cravath, Swaine & Moore, said Richards Layton is a go-to firm when he needs Delaware expertise.
"They’re very efficient," Gold said. "They’re always on top of what the law is, they know the judges well, they know how much to do and what you don’t have to do. They’re clearly one of the leaders down there and on the short list of firms we recommend to clients."
Stuart Grant, co-founder and managing director of Delaware-based Grant & Eisenhofer, confirmed Richards Layton is deeply involved in the local legal community. As opposing counsel against Richards Layton in corporate litigation, Grant said, he’s found that the firm is trustworthy and does a good job. "They’re well thought of," he said.
The firm boasts homegrown talent, preferring to hire young lawyers and shying away from lateral hires unless it needs to fill a partner-level position right away. The summer associate class shrank following the recession from a high of more than 20 to between six and nine. Krapf said Richards Layton has tried to accept only as many summer associates as it needs.
"We’re kind of like the NFL team that prefers to hire in the draft instead of free agency," he said.
The firm has stuck with hourly billing, Krapf said, although it does use flat fees for certain types of work, including routine matters for local clients. Because clients are buying expertise on specific areas of Delaware law, hourly billing has made the most sense, he said. Clients are more attentive to rates and efficiency, but "we certainly haven’t seen a significant influx of different ways of engaging us."
Part of the firm’s narrative includes a rough spot it hit in 2010, when a former information-technology manager was charged with using nonpublic client information to help orchestrate an insider-trading scheme. The employee, Jeffrey Temple, pleaded guilty.
Krapf, who said the firm cooperated with the authorities, explained that the key to overcoming the difficulty was handling it in a responsible and swift manner. Business was not harmed by the incident, he said.
"Every client understood our position as we expressed it: You can only do so much to prevent people from committing a crime," he said.
As Krapf prepares for his new role as firm president, he said that he has no plans to make dramatic changes. "Anyone who takes over this position has viewed himself or herself as more of a steward of the organization," he said.