Many Big Law firms took a risk-averse approach to lateral hiring in 2020, resulting in fewer partners moving between the country’s 100 largest outfits. But as some firms realized the coronavirus pandemic and related recession weren’t going to devastate their finances, they opened their coffers to recruit talent.
Through November this year, 1,112 lateral partners joined AmLaw 100 firms, according to data from Leopard Solutions analyzed by Bloomberg Law. That’s down about 30% from the 1,581 partners who made moves during the same time period in 2019.
The year’s most impactful partner hires show how large, wealthy firms took advantage of opportunities to grow high-margin practice areas. This year will widen the financial gap between the most successful firms and the rest, and that is likely to even further increase the richest firms’ ability to hire top talent, recruiters said.
“Don’t kid yourself that surviving is winning. You’ve got firms out there that are crushing it,” said Kay Hoppe, a veteran recruiter for top law firms based in Chicago. “The elite law firms are not about to give up their top spots. For better or worse, they have created a protective shell.”
Bloomberg Law compiled 15 lateral moves that defined an unprecedented year in the battle for Big Law talent.
February: Jenner & Block Hires Lee Wolosky and Dawn Smalls
Wolosky and Smalls were the first partners from Boies Schiller Flexner to join Jenner & Block this year. It quickly became a well-worn path as former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Security Council David Pressman and Douglass Mitchell made similar moves. King & Spalding also reaped the benefits of Boies Schiller departures, hiring around 20 lawyers from the firm in 2020, including a 13-lawyer group in April and a four-lawyer group in June.
March: Willkie Farr & Gallagher Hires Craig Martin
A high-profile litigator, Martin departed Jenner & Block after serving as firm chair for about one year to launch a Chicago office for Willkie Farr. He has since brought with him nearly 30 lawyers, developing a major Midwest base for the Wall Street firm.
March: Paul Weiss Hires Robert Holo
Holo had led Simpson Thacher & Bartlett’s tax department, which serves a key role for the firm’s bevy of private equity clients. Holo’s move showed how important it is that private equity practices have lawyers with a mastery of the tax code.
May: Kirkland & Ellis Hires Edward Lee
Kirkland has been raiding Wall Street firms for roughly a decade. But hiring Lee, an up-and-coming star from Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz, was new territory even for the world’s largest law firm by revenue. It prompted the industry to more seriously consider the long-term sustainability of the lockstep compensation model.
June: Paul Weiss Hires Karen Dunn, Bill Isaacson
Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison scored a major coup recruiting Dunn and Isaacson from Boies Schiller. The Washington duo had both been in leadership positions at Boies Schiller, and have proven to be a fierce litigation team while representing tech companies including Apple Inc., Orcale Corp., Facebook Inc., and Uber Technologies Inc.
July: Freshfields Hires Five Partners in Silicon Valley
Freshfields made a huge splash in Silicon Valley, hiring five lawyers from various firms, including former Davis Polk & Wardwell corporate partner Sarah Solum and ex-Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati securities litigator Boris Feldman. The office opening followed a long list of notable hires in the U.S. by the U.K.-founded firm, including Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton’s head of M&A Ethan Kingsberg and the former head of Willkie Farr’s corporate litigation group Mary Eaton.
July: McDermott Will & Emery Hires Seven Lawyer International Trade Group
Joanne Osendarp, who was chair of the international trade practice at Hughes Hubbard & Reed, made the jump to McDermott in a group of seven lawyers that also included former Hughes Hubbard defense industry group head Eric Parnes. July was a busy hiring period for McDermott, which also brought on five restruturing lawyers from Katten Muchin Rosenman earlier in the month.
August: Davis Polk & Wardwell Hires D. Jarrett Arp
Arp left Gibson Dunn, which he joined as an associate in 1994, for Davis Polk, highlighting the Wall Street firm’s evolving stance toward lateral hiring. Usually wary of lateral hires, Davis Polk in September said it would relax its lockstep compensation system, a move that will enable the firm to lure laterals with higher compensation and pay its top lawyers in accordance with the leading global firms.
September: Gibson Dunn & Crutcher Hires Craig Varnen
Varnen joined Irell & Manella in 1994 and served as vice chair of the firm’s litigation group before decamping to Gibson Dunn. His move underscored the the strength of Gibson Dunn’s litigation group in California, and also served as an example of recent high-profile partner departures from Irell.
September: Milbank Hires Neil Whoriskey
Formerly the co-leader of Cleary Gottlieb’s M&A practice, Whoriskey advised on Western Digital’s $19 billion acquisition of SanDisk and led on transactions for Carlyle Global Partners, ABB, América Móvil, American Tower, and OpenText. His move to Milbank came on the heels of several other high-profile exits from Cleary including Klingsberg.
September: Goodwin Procter Hires Five-Lawyer Private Equity Team
Erik Dahl and Christian Iwasko joined Sidley Austin in 2016 from Kirkland as a part of the firm’s push to establish itself as a private equity powerhouse. But in mid-2020, the pair left the firm and landed at Goodwin, along with three additional partners from Sidley, to help grow the firm’s private equity practice in London and across Europe.
October: White & Case Hires Restructuring Lawyers
At a time when bankruptcy practitioners are in high demand, White & Case made a significant investment in the group, starting with the hires of former Sidley Austin bankruptcy practice co-leaders Jessica Boelter and Bojan Guzina, followed by Sidley partner Andrew O’Neill and associate Matthew Linder. Later on in the year, White & Case also hired Keith Wofford, who had co-chaired Ropes & Gray’s restructuring practice, and former Ropes & Gray partner Stephen Moeller-Sally.
October: Latham & Watkins Hires Frank Saviano
Saviano left Proskauer, where he’d worked closely with star sports lawyer Joe Leccese, who is a former chair of the firm. Saviano’s departure showed how challenging it can be to retain young, up-and-coming lawyers when one of the largest firms in the world sets them in their sights.
November: Latham & Watkins Hires Rick Kline
Kline left Goodwin & Procter after nearly a decade in the firm’s Southern California technology practice. He joined Latham’s Silicon Valley office, which saw a year-end surge of business working on the Airbnb Inc. IPO and Slack Technologies Inc.'s acquisition by Salesforce.com Inc. Kline had previously led the team handling Slack’s direct listing on the New York Stock Exchange in 2019.
December: Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft Hires Nick Gravante
Gravante’s departure from Boies Schiller Flexner raised eyebrows since the former co-managing partner had been a staunch defender of the firm founded by David Boies as it lost numerous partners over the course of the year to competitors. Gravante’s exit prompted yet another leadership shuffle at Boies Schiller, but Boies himself expressed confidence in new deputy chair Natasha Harrison and said the firm’s generational transition was not back at step one.
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