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Switching firms usually means embracing change, not familiarity.

But it was deja-vu all over again twice last week, with two pairs of Philadelphia law partners returning to their former firms after years away.

Lisa Kabnick and Kathryn Pourmand Nordick both rejoined Pepper Hamilton from Reed Smith, where Kabnick had spent 14 years and Nordick had spent nine. And Montgomery McCracken Walker & Rhoads brought back partners Frank Chernak and William Kennedy, who had gone to Ballard Spahr in 2002 as part of a large group move.

Lawyers often rejoin a partnership after time in the government, or perhaps in-house. And Big Law partners have occasionally backtracked after just a few weeks at a new firm.

Moves like the ones announced by Pepper Hamilton and Montgomery McCracken are less common, area recruiters said. But they’re logical, and they may occur more often as law firms operate more like other large businesses competing for top talent.

Seeking a ‘Known Quantity’

The reasons behind last week’s moves vary. Kabnick and Nordick had switched to Reed Smith earlier partly to expand their finance practices at a firm where they might have better access to far-flung bank clients. Returning to Pepper Hamilton means a chance to build up a practice that recently suffered losses, and to resume working with colleagues they know already.

Chernak and Kennedy said they joined Ballard Spahr 15 years ago because they were part of a larger group, and felt compelled to move along with their senior partners. Returning to Montgomery McCracken, Chernak said, they can practice in a smaller, collaborative environment, and gain leadership in a practice group.

“I think that as the business of law continues to change, it’s more and more apparent that it truly is a business,” said Pittsburgh recruiter Maura McAnney, of McAnney Esposito. One aspect of that is that a primary driver of lawyer moves is clients and client conflicts, rather than the pull of specific partnerships.

Oftentimes lawyers look to their past firms when they encounter conflicts, McAnney said, or upon discovering that their former firm has gained an appealing practice area.

“The norm is that people don’t go back,” said Philadelphia recruiter Frank D’Amore, of Attorney Career Catalysts. “Usually there has to be something pretty fundamental that’s changed.”

That could be a change in firm or practice area leadership, D’Amore said.

When those changes take place, the relationships with former partners often remain, said Philadelphia recruiter Steven Kruza, of Kruza Legal Search. And when a firm loses productive partners, it often keeps close track of them, sometimes seizing on an opportunity to recruit them back, like when the firm loses a practice group and needs to quickly replace it.

“A big theme here is one door closes and another door opens,” Kruza said.

While a revolving door between firms is not typical, it may be more common in some markets than others.

“In Philadelphia, because big rainmakers are not abundant, it could happen more frequently,” said Cathy Abelson of Abelson Legal Search. Firms and lawyers “may have a tendency to go back to what is a known quantity.”

Those moves often take place without the help of a recruiter, Abelson said. And as more partners rejoin their former firms, she said, it could inspire firm and practice leaders to return to the well.

“It’s understood by mature people that changes occur,” Abelson said. “Going back to a firm that may be a totally different place than when they left may not be unlikely.”

The Right Fit

Returning to a former firm might mean going from a large partnership to a smaller one. But that kind of downsizing sometimes makes sense, D’Amore said. After 10 or 15 years at a larger firm, a lawyer’s practice might benefit from joining a smaller firm.

“There are smaller firms or firms with lower profits per partner that are extremely successful in some areas,” McAnney said. “You can’t judge a firm by its public metrics because they don’t always apply to you.”