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Backseat, Freezing Meetings: How Cooley Opened a Chicago Office

Sept. 16, 2021, 9:31 AM

Welcome back to the Big Law Business column on the changing legal marketplace written by me, Roy Strom. Today, we meet Cooley partners who interviewed dozens of Chicago lawyers during Covid to help launch a new office. Sign up to receive this column in your inbox on Thursday mornings.

When Yvan-Claude Pierre moved to Chicago from New York a year ago, a lull in Covid-19 cases allowed the meet-and-greets required for a law firm to open an out-of-town office.

But by January, as the virus surged, the Cooley partner known simply as “YCP” was meeting lawyers in homes or in the backseat of cars—an actual, if awkward, workaround when a restaurant unexpectedly closed.

“I remember being at Chicago Cut sitting at a table when it was freezing outside, and I had like three of those lamps around me meeting with people,” Pierre said of a steakhouse patio that overlooks the often-frozen Chicago River. “It was very energizing.”

Pierre and Travis LeBlanc, a Cooley litigation partner who helped lead the Chicago launch, met with dozens of lawyers and business leaders before opening the office in May with 10 attorneys, most plucked from major law offices in the city. The duo did the initial outreach to most potential hires, a rare personal touch in a Big Law talent battle typically left to recruiters.

Cooley’s Windy City office will approach 50 lawyers by the end of the month, the pair said in an interview, and their newly leased office space has capacity for about 100. The firm has a five-member summer associate class lined up for next year, signaling its interest in developing a full-service office from the ground up.

The start is a positive indicator for Cooley’s Chicago thesis, which is laid out in a 78-page book Pierre lugs to his meetings. The thesis is this: The city’s major companies and venture capital community are ready to support the first local office from a Silicon Valley-founded law firm.

“It is stunning to me that Cooley is the first elite Silicon Valley law firm to open an office to serve what is a thriving Midwest ecosystem that is home to high-growth, disruptive companies, a burgeoning venture capital company, and some of the most sophisticated public companies in the country,” LeBlanc said.

Firm handouts

Pierre and LeBlanc were recruiting not only during a pandemic, but also after the murder of George Floyd, which sparked an intense focus on diversity in the legal profession and in the broader business community.

Pierre and LeBlanc are both Black partners, and the Chicago office they helped build stands out among Big Law firms for its diversity. About 42% of the partners are women and 25% are racially diverse or identify as part of the LGBTQ+ community, LeBlanc said.

“Chicago is a diverse city,” he said. “There is no excuse not to have a diverse office.”

Cooley had a few Chicago connections before Pierre and LeBlanc began their interviewing circuit.

The firm’s chairman emeritus, Stephen Neal, is a former Kirkland & Ellis partner in the Windy City whose family ties stretch deep in Chicago. His father, Phil, was a University of Chicago Law School dean and co-founder of a well-respected local law firm.

Mike Lincoln, Cooley’s vice chair, who also had a hand in Chicago recruiting, is a former clerk for Judge Joel Flaum in Chicago’s federal court of appeals.

And then there was Cooley’s existing business presence in the Midwest. The firm had nearly 450 clients there and generated annual revenue worth about $100 million, LeBlanc said.

Cooley had considered opening an office in Chicago for nearly 10 years, Pierre said. But a recent Cooley study of the Chicago market determined that the last “extremely successful” Big Law firm to open an office in the Windy City was Latham & Watkins in 1973.

It’s a claim that plenty of firms could push back against. Skadden opened one in 1984, for instance, and its Chicago office has hovered around 150 lawyers in recent years. Jones Day’s local office started in 1987 and has housed more than 150 lawyers. More recently, firms including Perkins Coie, Ropes & Gray, King & Spalding, and Willkie Farr & Gallagher have opened offices.

Even before Cooley had committed to opening the Chicago office, Pierre began interviewing the local business community, including accounting firms, investors, banks, fund of funds, and general counsels. He asked whether there was an appetite for what Cooley offers: A firm that represents companies—from startups to publicly traded giants—in disruptive industries.

The interviews were used to bolster the 78-page business case that Cooley’s board approved, Pierre said, which led to the task of finding the right lawyers to open the office.

Cue the Covid job interviews.

Pierre often operated out of the Nobu Hotel rooftop in Chicago’s up-and-coming Fulton Market business district—itself anchored by an office of long-time Cooley client Google.

While the interviews led to some awkward moments, Pierre said there was also something humanizing about the process. It’s rare to be invited to a lawyers’ home—even if everyone is sitting 10 feet apart with their own food trays. And being invited into their homes indicated how serious the lawyers were about hearing their pitch.

“You have to have a good attitude and know that what you’re selling and doing is really fundamentally important to the ecosystem,” Pierre said. “And I believe that.”

Worth Your Time

On Office Re-Openings: Or not. Big Law firms are once again delaying their office opening plans, with Ruiqi Chen and Meghan Tribe reporting that law firm leaders have opted to keep offices closed despite concerns over how that will impact their culture and training. Perkins Coie said it will keep its work from home policy in place until next year.

On Diversity: All 118 Big Law firms participating in a diversity effort have met the program’s certification requirements, Elizabeth Olson reported. The firms collaborated with Diversity Lab and, among other results, 58% of firms reported that their lateral hiring pool was more diverse.

On Fashion Shows: The top lawyer at TED Conferences LLC doesn’t need them from her law firms. Nishat Ruiter, TED’s general counsel, told my colleague Ruiqi that she prefers direct conversations where lawyers can display their creativity and knowledge of TED’s business.

That’s it for this week! Thanks for reading and please send me your thoughts, critiques, and tips.

To contact the reporter on this story: Roy Strom in Chicago at rstrom@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Chris Opfer at copfer@bloomberglaw.com;
John Hughes in Washington at jhughes@bloombergindustry.com

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