Law firms have been rapidly expanding in Texas, putting the region’s lateral hiring market in what sometimes seems like constant motion.
But Texas firms vary widely and are not universally wed to a single lateral hiring strategy. Some, like Andrews Kurth Kenyon, which this week announced it is combining with Hunton & Williams, have expanded through mergers. Others have hired star attorneys, opened new offices, or sought out experts in particular industries or practices, while still others have added practice groups or hired large groups of lawyers.
In that regard, Texas is not so different from firms located elsewhere, as these are some of the most common strategies employed by firms across the country, according to a recent report in The American Lawyer.
But unlike some markets, the Texas lateral market continues to be “very hot,” said David Warren, a recruiter at Warren Recruiting in Houston.
“We have a lot of client firms looking for a lot of talent,” Warren said. “What’s interesting right now is it’s really across all practice areas, [whereas] 2017 was corporate only.”
The Texas lateral market has been especially active since the beginning of the year, with some of the most high-profile activity driven by departures from Andrews Kurth Kenyon prior to the firm’s upcoming merger with Hunton & Williams.
But how have some of Texas’ larger firms handled lateral hires over the years?
Locke Lord chairman David Taylor said his firm, which grew dramatically with a merger in 2015 with Edwards Wildman Palmer, has used all of the most common lateral hiring strategies and does not subscribe to one in particular. He said Locke Lord will hire stars or experts in circumstances where attracting that lateral will help boost a growing practice at the firm. But it also looks for lateral hires using other strategies, depending on the situation, he said.
Vinson & Elkins has focused on “high-end” laterals—what could be considered stars—as well as on achieving very measured growth, according to firm chairman Mark Kelly. “We have really focused on trying to go high-end, getting people from very outstanding firms, getting people with good books of business,” he said. “It takes a lot of time. Most of the people we are looking at are probably not looking to leave, and something happens or whatever, and you rekindle the relationship.”
V&E managing partner Scott Wulfe said the firm not only for excellence when making lateral hires but also seeks a cultural fit. “The reason you don’t see us adding 30, 40 partners a year is we don’t think we can do it well,” he said.
Indeed, Houston legal consultant William Cobb said hiring stars can be a risky strategy because firms can never be sure that star lawyers will live up to their reputations and book of business. ”And if they don’t produce, you owe them a lot of money,” he said.
And the work doesn’t end when a firm nabs a hot lateral hire. Cobb said firms need to work hard to integrate a star’s business into the firm, and even then, he added, probably only about half of all lateral hires are successful.
Culture and Practice
Jackson Walker, the largest firm based only in Texas, has expanded over the years by adding large groups of lawyers as well as smaller ones. Its largest addition came in 1999, when the firm combined with the Austin firm Small, Craig & Werkenthin, said managing partner Wade Cooper.
But the laterals the firm hires have to have a few things that are “inviolate,” Cooper said. Jackson Walker looks to add lawyers with a “great personality, a good book of business and a skill set that helps the firm maintain its position as a “go-to firm” in Texas, he said.
Honing its Texas strategy, Jackson Walker has also added lawyers who want to bill at rates lower than those charged by the biggest firms in Texas. “With the turmoil in the marketplace, we are finding a lot of folks who believe our platform meets their needs in terms of lower cost, better profitability, and a better culture,” Cooper said.
Finding lawyers who fit the firm’s culture and fill a practice need is also important to Thompson & Knight. The firm tends to hire laterals in groups, managing partner Mark Sloan said, adding that those additions are usually more successful. “Generally, there’s some level of business supporting that group,” he said.
Thompson & Knight might on occasion get into a bidding war over a partner but only if that lawyer has a practice the firm has targeted for growth and the lawyer seems like a good fit culturally, Sloan said. And closing those deals can be difficult.
“Some of the firms coming into the market are throwing around comp packages that really don’t make a lot of sense, but they are willing to overpay to open an office,” he said. “We are definitely in the market, but we also are going to be selective.”
Sloan and other Texas law firm leaders said it’s not all about lateral hiring. They also look to grow through the promotion and retention of associates.
“Lateral hiring is part of your strategy, but talent retention is more important,” Sloan said.