The Texas Legal Market experienced big changes in 2017, as law firms saw strong growth opportunities in the region and lawyers took advantage of market shifts.
Over the past year, out-of-state firms continued to inundate the Lone Star State with office openings, mostly in Houston and Dallas—a trend that has affected the state’s legal market for the last few years.
The market was further affected by considerable lateral movement between firms in Texas and by expansion within Texas by Texas firms.
“All this activity speaks to the strength of Texas, both its overall economic trajectory but also how that translates to a strong legal market,” said Kent Zimmerman, a Chicago-based consultant at Zeughauser Group.
Dallas was the epicenter of the heated market during the first quarter, with some splashy office openings. Winston & Strawn opened an office in February with 21 lateral partners from eight firms. Dorsey & Whitney opened an office in Dallas on March 1, initially with laterals from Schiff Hardin, which closed its Dallas office.
Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher announced in February that it had opened an office in Houston that would be staffed initially by eight partners. Two joined, but it was weeks before six energy partners who had given notice at Baker Botts were able to leave and move to Gibson Dunn‘s new office.
The trend of smaller out-of-state firms moving into Texas continued throughout the year. In January, the New Orleans firm Stone Pigman Walther Wittmann opened an office in Houston with five lateral hires from Cogan & Partners. The Oklahoma firm Crowe & Dunlevy opened an office in Dallas in September, about the same time that Louisiana firm Kean Miller opened an office in Houston.
In July, Dickinson Wright, based in Detroit, opened an office in El Paso with four lawyers from the recently shuttered El Paso office of Dykema Cox Smith. In August, Maryland-based consumer financial services law firm Hudson Cook opened an office Fort Worth.
And some large out-of-state firms that already had offices in Texas expanded their presence in the state. Duane Morris, for example, which already had an office in Houston, expanded in Texas with an office in Austin. And Atlanta-based Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton, which moved into Texas in 2015 when it merged with Dallas’ Crouch & Ramey, opened an office in Houston with 13 lateral hires from Houston’s Coats Rose.
Texas firms expanded within the state as well. Litigation firm Hicks Thomas, based in Houston, opened new offices in Austin and Beaumont in January; Dallas-based Strasburger & Price opened an office in Beaumont in May.
Also, in September, Mehaffy Weber, a firm with offices in Austin, Beaumont, and Houston, moved into the San Antonio market after absorbing five lawyers from litigation boutique O’Connell & Avery. Dallas family law firm Orsinger, Nelson, Downing & Anderson opened an office in Frisco at the end of October.
Underwood Law Firm opened an office in Austin in November, with two new hires who do education law, at about the same time Austin-based Powell & Leon, which specializes in education law, opened an office in Houston.
GoransonBain, a family law firm with offices in Dallas, Plano, and Austin, merged on Dec. 1 with Austin-based Ausley, Algert, Robertson & Flores.
More mergers may be on the horizon as some big Texas firms are in merger negotiations as the year winds down. Gardere Wynne Sewell is in talks with Foley & Lardner, and sources said Andrews Kurth Kenyon is talking merger with Hunton & Williams.
The year has also been marked by lots of lawyers landing at new firms. The year kicked off with considerable lateral movement in north Texas related to the closing of 80-year-old Fort Worth firm Shannon, Gracey, Ratliff & Miller at the end of 2016. Shannon Gracey lawyers moved to Munsch, Hardt, Kopf & Harr, Strasburger & Price and Greenberg Traurig, among others.
Condon Thornton Sladek, a transactional firm in Dallas, hired seven litigators from Anderson Tobin to form Condon Tobin Sladek Thornton. In a significant move in February, nine transactional partners who work in the energy sector left Norton Rose Fulbright to join Baker Botts in Houston. Also in February, King & Spalding expanded its energy strength in Houston with six lateral partners—four coming from Andrews Kurth Kenyon and two from Bracewell. Jackson Walker picked up six intellectual property partners in Houston from Houston IP boutique Williams Morgan.
In April, three trial partners left Baker Botts to form Jordan, Lynch & Cancienne, a Houston-based civil litigation boutique. Also in April, five trial lawyers joined Adams and Reese in Houston, coming from LeClairRyan’s Houston office, and three lawyers from Hays & Owens, an energy regulatory and litigation boutique in Austin, joined Jackson Walker’s office in Austin.
In July and August, four partners moved to Jackson Walker offices from Andrews Kurth, including a former federal prosecutor who launched a white-collar crime defense practice at the firm. The firm also picked up four laterals in San Antonio in June from Dykema Cox Smith. In September, Andrews Kurth lost four real estate lawyers in Dallas to Greenberg Traurig. In October, five capital markets and M&A partners who work in the energy sector left Andrews Kurth to join Sidley Austin in Houston. MehaffyWeber added five trial lawyers in Houston, who came from LeClairRyan.
Munsch Hardt picked up four construction law laterals in Houston from Coats Rose. Morgan, Lewis & Bockius expanded its health care practice in Houston with two partners in November and an additional six laterals in December, with most coming from Baker & Hostetler in Houston. Also in December, four labor and employment lawyers left Houston boutique Alaniz Schraeder Linker Farris Mayer to join Winstead’s Houston office.
And what of 2018? Zimmerman said he expects out-of-state firms to continue to eye Texas as a location for new offices, and he expects to see some mergers involving Texas firms. He suggests as well that some important lateral moves will occur after the new year.
“You’ve got a number of laterals who have talked to other firms and have said, ‘Well, let’s wait until the end of the year and see how my compensation shakes out and some other things, and restart talks,’” he said.
Zimmerman said some firms brought on lateral groups over the last few weeks, before that year-end compensation is set, to lock in the hires.
“Firms looking to acquire the lawyers wanted to avoid the post-Jan. 1 free-for-all they anticipated, and so tried to get deals done before it was kind of free agency,” Zimmerman said.