When the financial crisis hit, Charlotte’s two hometown banking giants, Wachovia Corp. and Bank of America Corp., took a mighty fall — and the associated legal work dove with it. Wachovia was forced into the arms of San Francisco-based Wells Fargo & Co. and the government bailed out Bank of America; it has been downsizing ever since. Among the consequences: Now shuttered Dewey & LeBoeuf closed its Charlotte office in 2008 and Sonnenschein, Nath & Rosenthal did the same in 2009. Other firms laid off staff and attorneys.
Business stabilized during the past year, however, and now is beginning to grow again, according to Michael Nedzbala, managing partner of Hunton & Williams’ 24-lawyer Charlotte office (which has half the attorneys it did in early 2008). The lateral market is heating up, firms are restoring their summer-associate programs and corporate transaction lawyers who were forced to try their hand at litigation or bankruptcy work during the downturn are structuring deals again.
"It’s an improving situation, but it’s still not where it was," said Nedzbala, whose office added one new associate last fall and plans to add another this year. "It was a very disruptive period."
Helping matters is the fact that feared mass layoffs at Wells Fargo never happened. Moreover, legal work from energy companies has grown as Charlotte-headquartered Duke Energy Corp. became the country’s largest electric utility following its 2012 merger with Progress Energy Inc. — a move helping the city attract Duke’s suppliers.
In short, the law firms that had to hunker down during the crisis are beginning to stretch their legs again. "There wasn’t a whole lot of growth, there wasn’t much lateral activity, and that’s changing quickly," Nedzbala said. "We’ve emerged out of it and are bullish about the future." — Jason McLure