Like the Texas economy, lateral hiring at large firms in the Lone Star State accelerated in 2010.

At the Texas offices of 19 of the 26 largest firms in the state, lateral hiring rose 10.3 percent in 2010 compared to lateral hires made by the same firms in 2009. That’s according to data collected in Texas Lawyer ‘s annual Lateral Moves Survey.

The 19 firms hired a total of 182 lateral attorneys in Texas in 2010, compared to 165 the year before.

That lateral hiring strength suggests firms are busier, and instead of battening down the hatches like they did during the recent recession, they began to beef up busy sections and expand into new practice areas last year.

“2009 was, I think, a year in which a lot of people hunkered down, and frankly the entire climate was softer, and people were probably less willing to consider making moves, because the devil they didn’t know could be worse than the devil they knew. 2010 was a little more normal,” says James B. “Jamie” Smith Jr., managing director of Cox Smith Matthews in San Antonio, which made 11 lateral hires in 2010.

“Our strategic plan calls for us to do some investment in the areas we’ve kind of identified. Last year was a year for opportunity to do some of that,” says Carol Glendenning, chairwoman of the policy committee at Strasburger & Price in Dallas, which hired 14 laterals in 2010.

Stacy K. Humphries, a recruiter with Pye Legal Group in Houston, says lateral hiring strengthened as 2010 progressed, improving each quarter during the year.

She says some of the push to hire laterals in Texas stems from an increased volume of deals as capital markets loosened up. That provided work for transactional lawyers and a demand for laterals.

Humphries says firms also hired laterals in 2010 simply because they were more confident that the volume of business is on the upswing.

On the other side of the hiring equation, Logan Shacklett, a recruiting manager for Robert Half Legal in Houston, says prospective lateral hires were more open to talking about making moves in 2010. “In 2009, the job security was the name of the game.”

Shacklett says some firms cut too many lawyers from their rosters in 2009, and hiring in 2010 and 2011 will restore some of those cuts.

Seize the Day

Kevin Lashus is a Texas lawyer who seized an opportunity in 2010 to move to a new firm where he believes his practice will grow because of cross-selling.

Lashus joined the Austin office of Greenberg Traurig as of counsel to leverage his immigration expertise. Formerly of counsel at immigration firm FosterQuan in Austin, Lashus focuses on employment verification compliance.

“That very specific area of the law is a need of most of GT’s clients,” Lashus says. He says Greenberg Traurig partners introduce him to their clients, which opens doors for him to generate business.

“If I can get into the room, most of the time I’m able to persuade somebody that they need me to represent them,” he says.

“The only people I market to are my own partners,” he notes. “I can provide expanded representation to our client base. That’s the most exciting thing of all.”

Lateral hiring has been a crucial element in Miami-based Greenberg Traurig’s growth strategy in Texas and elsewhere, says Ralph Santos of Dallas, regional operating shareholder for the 1,763-lawyer firm.

“We really do not grow by merger. We’ve gotten to be the size we have, because in each market we want to hire lawyers indigenous to that market. Part of that growth is hiring lateral shareholders, who in turn bring lateral associates with them,” Santos says.

Greenberg Traurig entered the Texas market in 2003 with a 20-lawyer office in Dallas, and, primarily through lateral hiring, the firm has expanded to 105 lawyers in the state with additional offices in Austin and Houston, Santos says.

He says lateral hiring has gotten easier for his firm in Texas as lawyers have become more familiar with Greenberg Traurig.

“When we came here we were unknown about six or seven years ago,” Santos says. “I think we’re finally starting to become a known brand.”

Greenberg Traurig made 18 lateral hires for its Texas offices in 2010, ranking it second among large Texas firms for the number of lateral hires made last year, according to the Lateral Moves Survey. [See "Lateral Hiring at Large Firms in Texas." ]

In addition to Lashus, two others who moved from FosterQuan to Greenberg Traurig are of counsel Maggie Murphy and associate Sujata Ajmera.

Charles Foster, co-chairman of FosterQuan in Houston, says his firm has added six lawyers to the Austin office since the trio departed in mid-2010. He says 55-lawyer FosterQuan will continue to expand, with some lateral hiring, but primarily with recent law school graduates who have worked as summer associates at the firm.

Strategic Plan

Winstead made 21 lateral hires in 2010, the most among the 19 firms on the survey. The Dallas-based firm has 262 lawyers firmwide, 255 of those in Texas.

Winstead had a firmwide, focused effort to be aggressive about lateral hiring in 2010, says Winstead chairman and chief executive officer Kevin Sullivan, who was the lateral hiring shareholder before holding those posts.

“Every shareholder and associate knows we’re in a lateral hiring mode. We were last year and this year,” he says.

In 2009 the firm canceled its summer associate program, thereby reducing its first-year associate class in 2010, but Sullivan says the lateral hiring campaign was not an effort to compensate for canceling the 2009 summer program. Instead, he says, Winstead wanted to capitalize on a market in which lawyers were willing to consider moving their businesses.

“Almost any [practice] areas where an attorney had a base of business of their own that was portable and compatible, we would at least have preliminary discussions with them,” he says. “And I think that people talking to us wanted to make sure that we were, No. 1, financially OK, and, No. 2, looking forward and not just sitting around licking our wounds from tough years.”

Strasburger & Price of Dallas made 14 lateral hires in 2010, compared to three in 2009. Glendenning says the firm’s strategic plan for 2010 called for lateral hiring, and the firm sought lateral hires during the year. According to the survey, three of the 14 lateral hires were partners.

She says the firm took the opportunity in 2010 to strategically add lawyers in specific practice areas, including health care and energy, to help build on its strengths of commercial litigation and corporate work.

Experience Level

On the flip side, Houston-based Bracewell & Giuliani, which has 454 lawyers firmwide and 312 in Texas, showed the biggest year-to-year decrease in the number of lateral hires in its Texas offices with five hires in 2010 compared to 22 in 2009.

Gregory Bopp, a partner in the firm’s Houston office and a member of the firm’s management committee, says the firm brought on 18 laterals in 2010 in all offices, not just Texas.

“Last year the best candidates that we met and ultimately brought into the firm just happened to be outside Texas,” Bopp says. He notes the firm’s primary lateral hiring focus in 2010 and 2011 is in the energy/finance and energy/regulation practice areas. “And certainly IP has been a big area of growth for us over the last couple of years,” he says. “Much of that [2011] hiring may occur in Texas.”

The Lateral Moves Survey shows the practice areas with the most hires last year were corporate, intellectual property and litigation. IP and litigation typically top the list of practice areas for lateral moves, but an improving 2010 credit market meant a jump in firms’ need for corporate lawyers. [ See "Lateral Hires' Practice Areas."]

“The economy has stabilized — it’s not incredibly robust — but there’s an across-the-board increase in capital markets and mergers and acquisitions,” says Vinson & Elkins partner Tom Leatherbury, chairman of the talent management committee for the Houston-based firm. “That surge started back in 2010.”

The 764-lawyer firm, with 533 lawyers in Texas, hired 17 laterals in 2010, up from 13 the previous year, and made the third largest number of lateral hires among the big firms. Leatherbury says V&E is “hungry for midlevel, experienced, third- through sixth-year [associates], particularly in capital markets and mergers and acquisitions.”

However, Leatherbury says V&E will carefully vet the experience level of lateral associate hires.

“You have to go more in depth about the individual’s experience when you’re coming out of a flat or down economy, because you want to make sure that the experience they had, say as a third- or fourth-year associate, translates to what your third- and fourth-year associates have been doing,” he says. “If they’re on the corporate side, what are the deal closings they’ve seen, what have they actually done?”